DAKAR, Senegal – Ibrahim Balde knew his place. He was the newest member of the construction crew, expected to do the hardest tasks for the lowest pay. So when he showed up for work on Friday morning, he went to take his place on the ground floor, at the bottom of the pulley used to yank buckets of cement up the four stories of the apartment complex they were building.
He was surprised and touched when his fellow crew member decided to give 20-year-old Balde a break, telling him to go to the top of the building and unload the buckets of cement, a far lighter and less-tiring task. It was that act of kindness that saved Balde: On the fourth floor when the building began to shake, Balde first fell with the structure, then regained his footing and succeeded in leaping off. The building crumpled beneath him, killing two members of the construction crew, including the young man who had traded places with him earlier.
It's the latest loss of life due to a building collapse in this part of Africa, where regulation is lax and officials are easily bribed. Last November, a housing goods store crumbled in Ghana, killing at least 17.
The four-story building was only permitted to be half as tall, said Omar Samb Gueye, the local chief in the Ouakam neighborhood, a former fishing village which has become part of Dakar's urban sprawl. He confirmed that two people were killed when the building fell between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Friday. Gueye blamed badly-executed and hasty construction for the tragedy.
"It's due to a defect in the way the building was constructed," he said. "There's no cement. Look," he said pointing to the rubble, which appeared to consist mostly of cinderblocks, a sand-like filling and metal wiring. "I'm not a mason, but even I can tell that it's bad construction."
Balde was hired a month ago and agreed to work for $4 a day doing whatever the foreman asked. He was brought on after his friend, the foreman's son, put in a good word for him. And for the first month — up until Friday — his job had consisted almost exclusively of hauling bags of cement to the mouth of the large bucket. Then filling the bucket, and then yanking the pulley until the bucket ascended, a job that he said left his arms tingling by the end of the day and the palms of his hands as hard as wood.
"I was at the top of the building. On the fourth floor ... I felt it fall away under me, and I went with it. Like I was sitting down. But then I was able to stand back up, and I jumped as hard as I could. I landed on my back, hitting my shoulder. A brick hit my head. I got up and ran," Balde explained. "When I looked back, the building was gone. I knew there was nothing I could do for Hassane," he said, naming his friend, whose crushed body was pulled out by firefighters later Friday.
In fact, it's possible that his friend was alive for at least one to two more hours. Moustapha Kane, a mason who was working at a construction site nearby, said that at around 11 a.m. one of the people trapped inside the building called a relative on his cellphone. He said that he and another man were stuck near the staircase, hemmed in by the debris. He begged for help.
Associated Press writers Sadibou Marone and Ndeye Sene Mbengue contributed to this report.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi