SAO PAULO (Reuters) - At least seven people were killed and more than 50 were injured on Sunday after the ceiling of an evangelical church in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, collapsed, fire officials said.
Television footage showed firemen and emergency workers sifting through a vast pile of rubble and broken rafters. Two rescue workers pulled a corpse on a stretcher from beneath a tangle of wooden beams.
“They are looking for bodies beneath the structure that collapsed,” a fire official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters. He said the search could last for days.
The O Globo newspaper website quoted fire officials as saying between 400 and 500 people had been worshiping at the Igreja Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ Church) in Sao Paulo’s southern district when the structure collapsed.
But the Church said in a statement that only about 60 people had been inside, O Globo reported.
The cause of the collapse, which happened just before 7 p.m. (4 p.m. EST), was unclear.
Witnesses told O Globo that a strong wind had blown through the church then there was a bang and the ceiling collapsed, according to O Globo.
“It was very quick. The ceiling started to fall as if it were dominoes. I was able to get out because I was next to the exit. I saw a lot of people stumbling over chairs,” said Luciana Costa, an events organizer.
Famed Brazilian soccer player Kaka is a member of the Reborn in Christ Church and was married there in December 2005. The church can hold around 2,000 worshipers.
The Reborn in Christ Church is among the biggest of Brazil’s hundreds of evangelical denominations that draw millions of worshipers each week.
It was founded in 1986 by Estevam and Sonia Hernandes, a couple who were arrested in Miami in 2007 for failing to declare a large sum of cash brought into the United States.
Brazilian media reported in October that the country’s Supreme Court had suspended Brazil’s request for the couple to be extradited from the United States. They are wanted in Brazil on money laundering charges.
Reporting by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Peter Murphy; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Chris Wilson