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Exclusive: Brazil World Cup stadium was structurally damaged by fire

Aerial view of the Arena Pantanal stadium in Cuiaba, November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
Aerial view of the Arena Pantanal stadium in Cuiaba, November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

By Brian Winter

CUIABA, Brazil (Reuters) - An October fire at a Brazilian World Cup stadium caused far more damage than previously reported, according to a report by local prosecutors obtained by Reuters, raising questions about whether the stadium will be ready for the competition and why government officials have insisted the blaze was minor.

State officials overseeing construction of the still-unfinished Arena Pantanal in the western city of Cuiabá, which is among 12 Brazilian cities scheduled to host games, have long said the October 25 fire wasn't a major cause for concern.

However, an 18-page report prepared in December by the Mato Grosso state Public Ministry, an independent judicial body similar to the district attorney's office in the United States, warned that the blaze caused "structural damage" that "could compromise the overall stability of the construction."

The report was delivered in December to the state agency overseeing the stadium's construction, the Extraordinary Secretariat for the World Cup, or Secopa. State prosecutors provided Reuters with access to the document, whose content has not been previously disclosed to the public.

It is unclear whether the damage described in the report has since been fixed. Prosecutors are scheduled to conduct a follow-up inspection of the fire site next Thursday, and they said they hoped the disclosure of the report's contents would lead local officials to be more cooperative and transparent than they have until now.

Mato Grosso state government officials continue to say that the fire did not cause structural damage.

"It has been impossible to get good information to this point," said Clovis de Almeida, a prosecutor at the Public Ministry. "We will make sure that no games occur (at the stadium) until the safety is completely guaranteed."

Under Brazil's complex legal system, the Public Ministry has a preventive role in addition to its prosecutorial mandate. Almeida is part of a special unit of prosecutors charged with monitoring the state government's actions as it prepares for the Cup.

World soccer body FIFA, which organizes the World Cup, said it was "unaware" of any structural damage caused by the fire, although it said its own recent inspections had indicated no major consequences. FIFA will "double-check" based on any allegations made in the report, Zurich-based spokeswoman Delia Fischer told Reuters by telephone on Saturday.

The Mato Grosso office of the Federal Public Ministry announced on Thursday that it is opening its own investigation into the fire, based on the state body's report.

The fire, and the conflicting reports over its fallout, raise new doubts about whether Brazil will be ready to receive roughly 600,000 foreign visitors expected to attend the World Cup from June 12 to July 13. Several stadiums have been plagued by repeated construction delays and a rash of accidents that have killed six workers.

Mendes Junior, the company building the stadium, referred all media enquiries to Secopa. That entity's chief, Mauricio Guimarães, said in an interview on Thursday that "of the reports we have, all of them say there was no structural damage."

OFFICIALS SAY ALL REPAIRS WERE MADE

The blaze, which police say may have resulted from arson, occurred in the basement level of one of the stadium's two main grandstands, which will hold roughly 10,000 people.

On Saturday, in response to Reuters' specific questions about the Public Ministry's report, Secopa sent a statement reiterating that it had received reports "guaranteeing that there was no structural damage to the Arena Pantanal, and that all the necessary repairs to the area caused by the fire have already been (made.)"

The Public Ministry report includes photos of cracks in concrete pillars that, it says, are part of the stadium's core structure.

"It is emphasized that the loss of resistance of these elements could compromise the overall stability of the construction," said the report, which was based on an inspection by an independent local civil engineer, Jonathan Almeida Nery.

According to the report, other photos show "complete decomposition" of concrete on the ceiling above where the fire occurred, as well as "less severe ... but important" damage to the stadium's steel frame.

The study concludes with Nery's "strong recommendation that the real damage suffered by the structure be verified, by means of tests."

It is unclear whether builders have conducted such tests since the fire occurred.

Reached by telephone on Saturday, Nery confirmed the report's contents and said he was "relieved" its findings were being made public. Asked why local officials still say the fire didn't cause structural damage, he said: "I don't know. Even the engineers at the site told me there was."

Nery added that he believed the problems at the stadium were "fixable" if addressed properly.

The Arena Pantanal is one of five Brazilian stadiums running behind schedule, having missed a December deadline for completion. FIFA has warned that unfinished facilities may be excluded from the tournament, with the most worrisome delays occurring in the southern city of Curitiba.

Any such exclusion would cost cities millions of dollars and be a major embarrassment for local politicians and World Cup organizers.

ARSON SUSPECTED

Fischer, the FIFA spokeswoman, said via email that the soccer body was aware only of "insulation material, piping, electrical cabling, pathways and switchboards, etc, (being) damaged as a result of the fire."

The first pre-World Cup test scheduled for the facility is a game between Brazilian soccer teams set for early April.

FIFA's secretary general, Jerome Valcke, visited the construction site last month.

A Reuters reporter took a guided media tour of the Arena Pantanal early Thursday, accompanied by a spokesman for Secopa and a representative of Mendes Junior. The builder did not allow the reporter access to the area affected by the fire because it was "under construction," according to the spokesman.

The cause of the fire remains a mystery.

Investigators believe the fire started with styrofoam and that it was "criminal" in nature, involving either negligence or arson, said Luciene Oliveira, an official at the Mato Grosso state judicial civil police.

Mendes Junior executives believe the fire was lit by a disgruntled construction worker who has since left the site, a source with knowledge of the investigation told Reuters. Oliveira declined comment on that possibility, but said police were looking for a witness who, they believed, has fled to the interior of the state.

The stadium is not the only aspect of Cuiabá's preparations that has experienced problems. A new $700 million light rail system that was supposed to be ready for the World Cup now isn't scheduled to be finished until December, five months after the tournament ends, Guimarães said.

A new airport terminal has also suffered delays, with work still continuing on the external structure. Guimarães said the existing airport could handle demand during the Cup if the new structure isn't finished on time.

The World Cup matches scheduled for Cuiabá are June 13, between Chile and Australia; June 17, between Russia and South Korea; June 21, between Nigeria and Bosnia, and June 24, between Japan and Colombia.

(Editing by Todd Benson, Martin Howell and Bernard Orr)

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