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Two people weep and another looks on outside a building. Photo:Mindaugas Kulbis
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Resounding fallout

Gederts Gelzis, Riga
November 27, 2013

Latvia's prime minister has just resigned in the wake of a roof collapse in Riga in which 54 people were killed. Valdis Dombrovskis' resignation is an admission of indirect responsibility - the real whodunnit now begins.


It was just another busy day at one of the chain supermarkets at a mall in the suburbs of Riga on November 21, when the rooftop of the Maxima store suddenly caved in, leaving 54 people dead and dozens injured.

As the initial shock of those left behind gradually fades, the fallout of the incident is beginning to reverberate. In a completely unexpected move, on Wednesday, the prime minister resigned. Seemingly out of the blue.

Latvia's Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis at a news conference in Riga
Dombrovskis said he was 'unable to solve this crisis'Image: Reuters

Valdis Dombrovskis, who was loved by the Latvian people, has apparently taken responsibility for what happened in this horrendous accident.

Just another Thursday?

Nobody saw this horror coming. When the news started trickling in, the details were scarce at best. A roof had collapsed in Zolitude, a suburb of Riga. Just a few casualties and some people wounded, the media initially reported.

It was only the next day that the Latvian people were confronted with what really happened. The scene of the collapsed supermarket in daylight was devastating. Rescue workers were frantically trying to find survivors in the debris as the death toll kept climbing every hour.

Eventually it stopped at 54 people. The nation was in shock. Hundreds of thousands of people were lighting candles and laying flowers near the collapsed store. There were lines of volunteers willing to donate blood in hospitals. And people raised more than half a million euros in donations for victims' families over just a few days.

It was really moving to see so many Latvians, who are otherwise often preoccupied with their own concerns, unite in sympathy and willingness to help those in need. The nation was immersed in three days of mourning and a time of reflection.

People place flowers and light candles in front of the Maxima supermarket in Riga, Latvia
The outpouring of support was a change of pace for Latvian societyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Explaining to do

Notwithstanding Dombrovskis' resignation and the - at least indirect - admission of responsibility implied, Latvia's politicians have promised a thorough investigation into how this could have happened, with the president promising "speedy convictions."

And those politicians insist that there shouldn't be a situation where nobody is eventually held responsible for any negligence or wrongdoing - a scenario all too common in Latvia.

The police believe that there might have been mistakes in the design of the building. But it's the construction works on the store's roof that have attracted the most attention. The idea was to build a garden and a children's playground on the roof, and workers may have possibly stored materials on the roof that were too heavy.

The Latvian public won't be satisfied by the mere fact that investigations are underway, or that there are hunches as to why the building caved in. And it probably won't be appeased by the resignation of its prime minister either.

A general view of the scene outside the 'Maxima' supermarket, after its roof collapsed in Riga, Latvia
The Latvian people are seeking an international investigation into what caused the fatal collapseImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Culprits sought

Latvians are seeking conclusions drawn by foreign experts because there are fears of a cover-up. In the end, the local construction experts are also linked to Latvia's large construction companies, so they won't be able to draw objective conclusions.

Either way, despite the horrendous surprise of the cave-in, and the prime minister's resignation, there is a feeling in the air that the roof collapse of the supermarket was a disaster waiting to happen - that it was a consequence of the growing irresponsibility of those in power, be it in construction, safety regulation or politics.

Dombrovskis' stepping down is a clear indicator of how seriously Latvian politicians are taking this tragedy. But he clearly can't be held responsible: It's now up to the authorities to find out who can.

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