Someone in Austin, Texas Was Very Sad to Read About the Latvian Supermarket Collapse
Latvia doesn’t occupy a large spot in the consciousness of most Americans. It does in mine.
From the first moment I first arrived on a bus in the capital of Riga, Latvia in the late 1990s, I’ve felt at utterly at home in a city that was once part of the Soviet Union.
While I don’t have a Latvian granny and I don’t speak the language, I’ve nevertheless made many friends and acquaintances in the country’s music and arts scene. I’ve stayed in Latvian homes, been given backstage tours of important Latvian cultural sites, and explained Latvian customs to visiting rock stars.
At our house in Austin, Texas we’ve had so many Latvian houseguests over the years that my husband jokes we ought to buy a Latvian flag to flutter above the porch when we have Latvian guests in residence.
Over the last few week, it’s been very hard to read the news reports of the Maxima store collapse in Latvia, killing 54 people. Another 40 people were injured. Three official days of national mourning were declared to mark the severity of this, the biggest national tragedy since Latvia regained independence in 1991.
For those who may have missed the story, here’s a brief summery: a flat roofed building completed in 2011 was rented by the Maxima supermarket chain (one of the two competing major grocery store chains in Latvia). Located away from the center in a neighborhood close to the Riga airport, construction was underway to build a playground/ roof garden on top of the building, with sand and building material piled on the roof.
At around 5:30 on Thursday, November 21 the roof of the building gave way during the busy after-work shopping time. Electronic locking doors trapped people inside, even as they tried to escape. Days later, while search and rescue operations were underway, the rest of the roof of the building collapsed. Watching the video of the final part of the roof collapsing, it appears rush down like water.
Unusually for an accident, the criminal investigation started while search and rescue efforts were still underway. Latvian President Andris Berzins has publically called the supermarket collapse “murder” of the 54 victims.
“This is a case where we need to say clearly it is the murder of an enormous number of defenseless people, and that’s how we should proceed,” Berzins said.
Given the way organized crime manages to have a finger in many bowls of pink soup in Latvia, I’m not surprised at that official response. Nor am I surprised to hear of the President’s call for accident investigators from outside Latvia.
It’s been very hard to watch this Latvian tragedy unfold across the world in real time. On social networks my friends who have immigrated to Latvia have reassured family and friends in their native countries that they are okay. Many Latvian friends have changed their social media profile pictures to black ribbons, often with a #prayforLatvia hashtag. (This is in a country where the Soviet suppression of religion was so successful –and the eradication of Jewish life so complete– that none of my Latvian friends participate in any organized religion.)
On social media I’ve seen pictures of candles and flowers left by the culturally important Freedom Monument in the center of Riga, as well as outside the supermarket collapse. I’ve read a moving firsthand account from the scene of the accident from a photographer whom I recognize from press lounges in Latvia. I was told that one of my former Latvian houseguests spoke moving words when his band Instrumenti played a scheduled concert soon after the tragedy.
Here in Austin, Texas, I’m mostly alone in my sadness. While my local friends have been willing to listen to a new Latvian rock album with me, or try a sip of the strong Riga Black Balsam liquor, none of them have been to the country or have friends there who are also sad about the tragedy.
The last time I left Latvia, as I was getting into my cab to go to the airport, my hostess joked that I’ve been in Latvia so much that I must be at least half Lativan now. Normally being “half Lativan” would be a good thing, but right now that Latvian half of me is very sad about an accident halfway around the world.