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CAIRO – An apartment building in Egypt's capital collapsed Tuesday, killing at least 19 people as rescuers and neighbors frantically dug through rubble with their hands to find survivors, authorities said.
The collapse in Cairo's eastern Matariya district highlights the longtime problem of shoddy construction across Egypt, as neighbors said the seven-story building had several floors illegally added onto it. Egyptian developers seeking bigger profits frequently build without permits amid a nationwide housing shortage, rampant corruption and lax government oversight.
The building caved in around 1:30 a.m. as many inside slept, witnesses said. Bulldozers roared into the neighborhood's narrow alleys after the collapse, removing chunks of cement, steel rods, scattered clothes and bloody bed sheets. Neighbors said workers looked for mattresses in the hope they'd find survivors nearby.
Mamdouh Abdel-Qader, the head of Cairo Civil Defense, said rescuers recovered 19 bodies from the collapse. The official MENA news agency said workers pulled eight residents out of the rubble alive. Neighbors said those still buried made desperate mobile phone calls, begging for help.
"A man with his daughter was calling me saying they are trapped in darkness," said a dust-covered Ali Abdel-Fattah Ali, a government employee who moonlights as a mechanic in a nearby car repair shop. "I tried to call back but there was no answer. I don't know what happened. His phone is still ringing."
Immediately after the collapse, Abeer Ismail, 25, called out the name of her mother-in-law, who lived on the second floor. Ismail said she had last visited the building on Sunday and could tell it was unsafe.
"You could see the steel rods popping out of the walls and cracks covered the walls," she said.
The son of the building's owner jumped off a balcony to escape the collapse, neighbors said. It's unclear who owns the building now as the owner died six months ago.
Officials and neighbors said that the building owner defied a court ruling issued five years ago and illegally built several extra floors atop the original four-story structure.
Abdel-Khaleq Abdel-Hadi, a resident who wasn't in the building at the time of the collapse, accused local authorities of accepting bribes to hold off the execution of the court order.
"This is extreme act of negligence by our government ... where souls of people are worth nothing," said Abdel-Hadi, whose family fled the building once they felt it shaking.
On its website, the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper quoted Matariya council housing official Salah Galal as saying a total of 37 other area buildings were ordered to be removed for being illegally built since 2012. Galal denied his staff took any bribes, saying police are responsible to execute such orders.
There was no immediate response from police officials.