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Church collapse kills at least seven worshippers

Latest update : 2009-01-19

At least seven worshippers were killed and dozens injured when a church in Sao Paulo in southern Brazil collapsed on Sunday evening. Witnesses said the roof of the church, which can hold 3,000 people, collapsed during a service.

AFP - Fireman in Brazil's biggest city of Sao Paulo were working under arc lights into Monday morning in a search for bodies in a church which collapsed the evening before, killing at least seven worshipers and injuring 57 others.

The streets in front of the evangelical Reborn in Christ Christian Church, in the southern suburb of Cambuci, were filled with fire trucks and ambulances.

Police kept curious residents and bystanders behind cordons as bodies pulled from the building were ferried from the scene. Grieving relatives were being counselled in a nearby shop.

Rescue workers said the toll could rise further.

A spokesman for the fire service run by the state's military police told AFP "we fear there are more bodies" buried under the debris.

According to witnesses, the roof of the big building collapsed around 7:00 pm (2200 GMT) on Sunday.

"There was a huge noise and then people started running everywhere. I saw a lot of people hurt, a lot of panic, screams and chaos ... then there were various efforts to save the people trapped under the rubble," one man who survived told Brazilian media.

The church, which can hold up to 3,000 people, had scores of worshipers inside for a weekend service at the time.

"We're working with numbers of around 400 people who were inside the church," a Sao Paulo fire service official said. He added that 150 firemen were scrambling over the debris in the search for casualties.

The reason for the collapse was not immediately known. The church recently underwent superficial renovation work, and in recent days Sao Paulo has been hit by heavy rains. The building previously housed a cinema.

The church was known in Brazil and abroad as the venue where Kaka -- the Brazilian soccer star who is currently being wooed to move to Manchester City from AC Milan -- married in December 2005.

Television images taken from a helicopter showed the inside of the building to be a dark mass of rubble, with concrete and metal girders covering the entire floor.

From the street, the destruction could not be seen. The walls of the church still stood, and white cloth was put up to obscure the scene inside. Police kept media away from the building overnight.

The Reborn in Christ denomination has a significant following in Brazil, where it was started in 1986, as well as in Argentina, Uruguay, the United States and Japan.

It possesses around 1,500 churches and relies on sizeable donations from followers.

Its founders, Estevao and Sonia Hernandes, have built an extensive media empire. They have also come under suspicion from authorities of using the church for money laundering, and were arrested in Miami in 2007 for money smuggling.

Date created : 2009-01-19