The collapse, which was reported at around 9 a.m., prompted the authorities to evacuate buildings surrounding the hotel and cordon off an area, near the French Quarter, that is often packed with tourists. Officials warned on Saturday that the building was still “very unstable,” and could collapse further. A 270-foot crane at the site was also at risk of falling.
Investigators examined the building and talked to workers who had been inside before sending in rescuers to try to find the missing. Rescue workers entered several hours after the collapse, the authorities said, starting their search for one of the missing people who was believed to be in a part of the building that was more stable. But the other was likely in a spot far more dangerous to enter.
“Remember, we have first responders going into a very dangerous building right now, trying to do their job,” Collin Arnold, the city’s director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, told reporters.
The collapse took place in portions of the upper floors of a future Hard Rock Hotel on Canal Street, which has been under construction for at least a year. The hotel’s plans called for 350 rooms, residential spaces, two ballrooms and 12,000 square feet of event space.
Witnesses said that debris came crashing onto the street. Dramatic video shot from inside a streetcar as the collapse occurred showed vehicles speeding away from the scene. Someone inside the streetcar could also be heard instructing people to “get to the back.”
“We saw, all of a sudden, just this thick cloud of white smoke and metal falling,” said Sarah Fischer, an employee at Fischer’s Jewelry on Canal Street who saw the collapse. “You couldn’t see in front of you and it lasted 30 seconds, maybe a minute.”
David Donze, who was attending a function at a nearby church, said that he rushed over shortly after the collapse and saw a tangle of metal that filled the roadway. He took photographs and videos of the debris and at least one worker who was wincing from what appeared to be a minor injury.
“I got there and workers were running like crazy,” Donze recounted, adding, “I just can’t get my head around it.”
Nineteen people were assessed for injuries at the scene, 18 of whom were transported to area hospitals, the New Orleans fire chief, Timothy McConnell, said. All were in stable condition. There were no reports of people injured on the ground around the construction site.
Earlier, officials said that one other person had been unaccounted for, but that person was found in a hospital and was also in stable condition, the authorities said at a later news conference. Officials also said that an unspecified number of others — in the “double digits,” emergency officials told reporters — had gone to hospitals on their own.
The person killed in the collapse was still in the building hours later, Jonathan Fourcade, a spokesman for New Orleans Emergency Medical Services, said on Saturday. The identity of that person, who fire officials said was a worker on the site, had not been released.
Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, who had a day of reelection campaign events scheduled as polls were opened for a statewide primary race, rerouted to the site of the collapse on Saturday. “Obviously, it’s a very serious situation here on Canal Street,” Edwards, a Democrat, said at a news conference. “I’m just asking for everybody to lift up in prayer those who are at the hospital” and people who were “unaccounted for.”
Hard Rock International said in a statement that the hotel was being built as part of a licensing agreement and that it had “no involvement” in its construction. “We want to extend our deepest sympathies to victims of this tragic accident and to their loved ones and friends,” the statement said.
Later in the day, as crews were preparing to go inside the building, parts of it looked shredded, as strips of metal and other materials dangled. Tourists and residents gathered along the area blocked off by police tape; one group of men posed for a photograph with the building looming behind them.
The street closings clogged surrounding roadways with traffic and disrupted some of the city’s bus routes. Officials cautioned that the area around the hotel might be closed for some time, at least through the weekend, as the building remained a danger and a perilous search was still underway.
“This is not a short-term event,” McConnell said on Saturday afternoon, comparing the wreckage to that left by an earthquake and asking for the city’s patience and understanding. “It is a marathon.”
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