The cause of the fire is now unknown, according to the spokesman, who added that he does not know the total number of floors in the building due to the partial collapse.
Evacuees told the police that part of the building's inhabitants managed to escape on time.
Scores of homeless families were occupying the building, according to officials. However, so far only one person was reported dead, local media reported. Witnesses heard someone calling for help on an upper floor when the building collapsed.
According to the information provided by the Sao Paulo Fire Service, at least 160 personnel and 57 units of equipment were involved in the operation.
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At least one person died and three others were missing, a fire department spokesman said.
One resident, Romulo de Souza, told Globo TV that the fire started on the fourth floor.
Officials said the inferno began at around 1:30 a.m. and it wasn't known how many people were inside. The government estimates that almost 4000 families are living in vacant buildings downtown.
"I was unsure if my son had taken my youngest daughter", Antonio, 48, told AFP.
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The fire highlights the perils of Sao Paulo's affordable housing crisis. "I patted the mattresses, saw no one was at home anymore, then I went down behind them shouting their names to see if they had gone down".
"It's a building that didn't have the most minimal conditions to live in", Sao Paulo Gov. Marcio Franca, who visited the site, told news site UOL, adding that "the occupation should never have been allowed".
Firefighters evacuated the building and contained the fire with no victims or risk of collapse. "The state is acting as if us, the occupiers, us, from the movements, are responsible for this". It was not clear what started the fire.
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