REPORTING FROM RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rescue workers in Brazil were searching for survivors Thursday after three large buildings collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, killing at least three people and leaving 20 or more missing.
What caused the buildings, the tallest about 20 stories, to collapse about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday remained undetermined, officials said.
“Probably there was a structural failure in the largest building . . . which led the other two buildings . . . to collapse as well,” Mayor Eduardo Paes said.
Survivors said the buildings fell almost instantly, leaving little time to get away.
Alexandro da Silva Santos said that he was in an elevator that plummeted to the ground, but that he was not seriously injured. He said he used his cellphone to call for help.
“It was pure luck that I still had my cellphone with me,” he said.
The three buildings were located just behind the Municipal Theater, one of Rio's most beloved buildings and one of downtown's main tourist attractions. Debris landed on the theater without causing structural damage.
Rio is preparing to be a host city for the World Cup in 2014 and to host the Olympics in 2016. The city has been making major investments to improve infrastructure, transportation and safety for the events, and has been criticized for being behind schedule.
Authorities kept much of the area blocked off Thursday. Dozens of friends and relatives of the missing waited for more information.
Photo: Firefighters look for victims amid the rubble of a collapsed building in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Ari Versiani / AFP/Getty Images