Late on the morning of May 18th I was at my Colombo workplace when I was telephoned by my partner, who was back in our apartment. She said that in the mid-morning she’d heard a cacophony of sirens – police cars, ambulances and / or fire engines – on the street outside. Then, soon after that, she’d received a call from our local electrician, who’d been in the apartment the day before to check an electrical fault in a couple of our wall-sockets.
The electrician’s reason for ringing today was nothing to do with the condition of those sockets. He’d just heard a news-flash saying that a building in our neighbourhood had collapsed and he wanted to make sure we were okay.
Reports about what’d happened were already appearing on the Internet. It turned out that part of a big banquet / party / wedding reception complex called the Excellency, which stands behind the Savoy Cinema on Galle Road, had caved in. The building’s façade remained intact but its back half, where some new floors were being constructed on top of an existing section, had suddenly fallen like the proverbial house of cards. Trapped in the rubble were both members of the Excellency’s staff who’d been in the completed bit at the bottom and builders who’d been working in the under-construction bit at the top.
Not only were the emergency services soon on the scene to begin rescue efforts, but members of the Sri Lankan army were drafted in too. By bad luck, shortly after the disaster happened, it started raining heavily and Colombo endured what was probably its wettest day so far of 2017, which meant that the rubble and dust that the rescuers were working in must have turned into a quagmire.
By the day’s end we’d heard reports that 23 people had been pulled out of the debris and taken to hospital and one person had later died of their injuries. The bodies of two more victims were to be recovered from the flattened building over the next few days.
I walked past the place the following evening. The soldiers were still present – indeed, one off-duty group of them sat and gazed out forlornly at the rain from the back of a truck parked next to our apartment building. The stretch of street at the front of the Excellency had been sealed off with big white-and-red traffic cones, though the police guards posted there were tolerant of pedestrians walking through the closed-off area so long as they kept walking and didn’t make nuisances of themselves.
Considering what’d happened, the Excellency’s façade showed surprisingly little sign of damage. If you peered down the alleyway at its side, you could make out a piece of still-standing wall with a pile of rubble at its bottom and, hanging above it, a broken, twisted mess of roofing. Meanwhile, the floor of the Excellency’s front lobby was slathered with dried muddy footprints left by rescue-workers going to and coming from the devastation at the rear. And one of its front windows had disintegrated and covered the street below in pieces of blue-tinted glass – it looked like there’d been a snowfall and then a thaw and now there was a thick slush full of lumps of melting ice. At first, I thought that window might have been smashed by the rescuers, wanting to get some bulky rescue equipment into and through the building; but then, seeing how all the broken glass was lying outside rather than inside, it occurred to me that the window had probably been knocked out by the shock-waves from the collapse.
The pavement in front of the entrance to the Savoy Cinema was cordoned off with ropes and the building was atypically dark and silent. A sign in the door said simply: “We are closed today.”
To see the collapsed building itself, you had to go onto the bridge where Galle Road crosses the Kirillapone Canal. From there, you could view a giant, crumpled hole among the row of buildings backing onto the canal. Debris and rubble oozed like a semi-solid effluent down into the canal-water below. The whole, sad sight was framed between the big green fronds of the trees that grow near the bridge.
Barely had the disaster occurred than journalists got wind of the fact that the building had received inadequate planning permission. The owner had been authorised to build three storeys by the canal – but at the time of the collapse the structure was five storeys high and the intention was to finally raise it to seven.
Initially, we’d heard rumours that the Excellency’s owner – whom, understandably, the police were keen to speak to – was ‘out of the country’. However, on May 21st, news came through that he’d been arrested.
And without wishing to prejudice any upcoming trial, I can only say to that: “Good.”