By Zandi Shabalala
TONGAAT, South Africa (Reuters) - At least one person was killed and dozens were feared trapped under rubble on Tuesday after a soccer pitch-sized section of a shopping mall under construction collapsed near the South African city of Durban, emergency services and police said.
Witness Fiona Mooneal, who lives across a railway line from the construction site, was standing in her kitchen washing up teacups when the three-storey building collapsed as though it had been dynamited.
"It was just after 4.30 (1430 GMT). Suddenly about 200 meters of concrete slab just collapsed all at the same time. The screams of the guys, above all of that mad noise, you could still hear them," she told Reuters.
"It was like when you blow up a building, a bomb. That sound - it was terrible."
It was not yet clear what caused the three-storey building in the town of Tongaat, 30 km (20 miles) north of Durban, to collapse although Deputy Mayor Nomvuzo Shabalala said local authorities had tried to halt construction a month ago.
"There are areas of the law that they did not follow in terms of building of this infrastructure," Shabalala told broadcaster ENCA. "We were not aware that they were continuing building."
If safety regulations are found to have been flouted, the accident could hurt the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it moves towards an election next year.
Durban and the surrounding province of KwaZulu-Natal are the home of President Jacob Zuma, and the region has enjoyed a construction boom in the last few years, based in part on government investment in infrastructure improvements.
Initial reports suggested as many as 50 workers were trapped under the rubble, although officials later scaled down their estimates.
"There are about 24 people who are at this stage unaccounted for. We're not sure whether they might still be trapped or whether some of them might have gone home," municipal spokesman Thabo Mofokeng told Reuters.
"SO MUCH NOISE"
As darkness fell over the site, scores of rescue workers, sniffer dogs and police, illuminated by powerful arc lights, combed through the broken concrete slabs and twisted lengths of scaffolding, looking for survivors.
"In all my years as a paramedic I have never seen anything like this," said one rescue worker, running to the site carrying oxygen canisters. Others used hydraulic jacks to lift the slabs and grinders to cut through the metal.
"You can't see anything, and you can't hear anything. The generator is making so much noise," another rescue worker said.
Large crowds of onlookers and anxious friends and relatives gathered in the darkness behind a security cordon.
Besides one confirmed death, 29 people, two of them in critical condition, were rushed to nearby hospitals, which initiated full-scale disaster plans, health officials said.
A high death toll could also sour labor relations in the construction sector, which has an otherwise decent safety record due to the strength of South Africa's unions.
"It's mainly broken bones, soft tissue injuries and a bit of shock. But obviously there are a lot of patients that are still trapped on site," said Jenny Meer, manager of the Mediclinic Victoria hospital in Tongaat.
The ANC is expected to win the election expected in April or May next year, although its share of the vote is likely to taper as young post-apartheid South Africans with no knowledge of white-minority rule come of age.
Incidents such as the police killing of 34 strikers at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg last year have also fuelled a sense of the ANC neglecting Nelson Mandela's dream of building a more equal, caring society from the ashes of apartheid.
(Additional reporting by Tosin Sulaiman, Stella Mapenzauswa, Peroshni Govender and Ed Cropley; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Ralph Boulton)