Monorail tragedy overshadows buildup
SAO PAULO -- The blood was still there Tuesday, streaked across the face of a towering concrete pillar. It had been spilled late Monday afternoon when a 30-yard stretch of cement monorail track fell onto the street below and took three construction workers with it; one of them, a young man, was crushed to death. The collapse had happened at one of this city's hundreds of busy intersections, where Rua Vieria de Marois crosses Avenue Washington, and now the traffic was even worse than usual, the passing motorists slowing down to stare at another of this World Cup's growing collection of stains.
The monorail, a much-needed connection to Aeroporto de Congonhas, was meant to be one of the signature legacies of this event, the sort of reward that ordinary Brazilians would receive in exchange for their playing host to the rest of us. But like so much of the promised infrastructure, Sao Paulo's monorail is far from finished, its track ending in open space. The stretch that fell was one segment away from the literal end of the line. Now it has two ends.
Men in white hard hats stood on the rubble and examined it and took pictures of it and the twisted rebar that had failed to hold it in place. A light rain fell on their shoulders. They have been given just two days to complete their investigations and clean up the mess, until five o'clock Wednesday afternoon -- exactly 24 hours before Brazil faces Croatia in Thursday's opening World Cup match across town.
Sao Paulo is always frantic, a massive, sprawling city, but now the feeling is more like frenzy, stoked by a succession of similarly brutal ultimatums. The pressure -- months and years of anxiety coming to its collective head -- has exposed this beautiful country's many cracks. The idea that they might all get fixed or at least vanish by Thursday doesn't just seem like an impossible dream. It feels like a reckless one, too.
And yet the hasty patchwork continues apace. A subway strike had crippled the city until late Monday night, when workers entered a tenuous agreement to go back on the job, while still threatening to shut down the trains again on match day. A coalition of homeless workers has also agreed to stop its street protests after a government vow to build more public housing, even if it will fall behind the monorail on Brazil's long list of fantasy construction projects. Sao Paulo's international airport, seized up beyond release Monday, when a two-hour wait for taxis kicked off the five-hour commute into town, began operating a little more easily Tuesday. There remained an enormous line just to get into the equally enormous customs line, but things were still running better than expected, however low those expectations might be.
Who knows? Maybe some last-minute miracle visits Brazil in the coming weeks and everything else somehow holds. In the lead-up to South Africa's World Cup in 2010, there also had been forecasts of disaster, from street violence to unfinished stadiums. (One project that was not completed in time was a monorail.) In the end that tournament unfolded as smoothly as even the most optimistic South African might have hoped.
But it was hard to stand in the rain in Sao Paulo on Tuesday and look at the blood on that concrete and not read into it every bad sign. Four local news crews had staked out places on the torn-up earth nearby and filmed that stained pillar over the barricades that had been put up overnight. One of the reporters got a pained look on her face not at the sight of the blood but at the sight of a foreign journalist. "Please say nice things about my country," she said. Like so many Brazilians, she did not -- she does not -- want the legacy of this tournament to be a shameful one.
In her city of seams, however, one more had undeniably and tragically burst at the intersection of Washington and Vieria de Marois. There wasn't yet certainty about the name of the worker who had died here. His age -- either 25 or 27, depending on the source -- was also unclear. Only one fact about him, other than his death and the sadness of it, had been agreed upon: He was a migrant from the rural north who had come to this incredible, terrifying, broken, defiant city to build things, including a better life. He did not get the chance to finish. By this time Wednesday his blood will be washed away, and the piece of track that had drawn it will be gone, too. The day after that there will be a soccer game between Brazil and Croatia. A whistle will blow, and Brazil is expected to win.