The state-run channel PressTV said that at least 30 firefighters were feared dead and that dozens of people could be trapped beneath the rubble.
Firefighters had battled the blaze for several hours as police officers tried to shoo away shopkeepers trying to return to collect their valuables, PressTV reported. Then came the collapse. As the building fell, a television journalist reporting on the fire suddenly raised his voice. Onlookers could be heard gasping and shrieking. Several firefighters burst into tears.
The high-rise, the 17-story Plasco Building, is in the center of Tehran, near the German and Turkish Embassies, and it houses a shopping center and garment manufacturers. The tower, with a distinctive facade that looks like a cheese grater, was built by Habib Elghanian, an Iranian-Jewish businessman, and was named for his company, which manufactured plastics. He was accused of espionage and executed in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Firefighters said the blaze appeared to have started in the morning on the 11th floor before spreading to a floor below, trapping some of their colleagues inside. Firefighters on the ground stared upward, appearing horrified by the predicament faced by those in the building. Two of them comforted a colleague, his face ashen, as he knelt, pointing at the building.
The choreography of the structure’s collapse played out with cinematic inevitability. First, one side of the building crashed, just missing a firefighter standing on a ladder, The Associated Press reported. Then the rest came tumbling down.
So dense were the plumes of smoke that Jalal Maleki, a spokesman for Tehran’s fire brigade, told The A.P. that the cloud was “visible from the southern parts of Tehran,” miles away.