An apartment building has collapsed in an apparent explosion in Marseille, injuring at least five people, with authorities in the French city saying up to 10 others could be under the burning rubble.
Fire was hindering the search for the missing on Sunday afternoon, with authorities warning the blaze could continue for hours.
“We have to be prepared to have fatalities in this terrible tragedy,” the Marseille mayor, Benoît Payan, told journalists at the scene in the central La Plaine district, where more than 100 firefighters were still getting the blaze under control and the smell of smoke hung in the air.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said there were between four and 10 people trapped under the rubble. “We don’t know if they’re alive or dead,” he told reporters, adding that authorities were also yet to discover the cause of the “very large blast” that prompted the collapse.
Five people were injured in neighbouring buildings that were damaged by the collapse and 33 were taken into care by emergency responders.
“I was sleeping and there was this huge blast that really shook the room. I was shocked awake as if I had been dreaming,” said Saveria Mosnier, who lives in a street near the site in the La Plaine neighbourhood.
“We very quickly smelled a strong gas odour that hung around, we could still smell it this morning,” she added.
It is unclear how many people were inside the collapsed block – believed to have one apartment on each floor. “Not all the people who were supposedly inside the building have been seen, families are worried,” the French housing minister, Olivier Klein, told the broadcaster Franceinfo.
The intense heat as the building burned kept search dog teams from picking through the rubble. More than 100 firefighters were battling the blaze in the ruins of the building, believed to have one apartment on each floor.
Time was of the essence to discover possible survivors among the ruins, the Marseille fire chief, Lionel Mathieu, said. Rescuers’ task has been complicated by the partial collapse of one of the adjoining buildings, where eight people had to be brought down by ladder after taking refuge on a roof terrace.
Other buildings on the street were evacuated and residents put up in schools, while an aid centre for people looking for missing family members or loved ones has been opened in a neighbouring district.
“We have to be very cautious about what the cause was at this stage,” said Christophe Mirmand, the prefect of the southern Bouches-du-Rhône region. Gas was “one possible option”, he said.
Gilles, who lives on a sidestreet near the building, told AFP the sound of the crash “was huge”. “It sounded like an explosion,” he said, declining to provide his last name.
Eight were killed in Marseille in 2018 when two dilapidated buildings in the working-class district of Noailles caved in. It cast a harsh light on the city’s housing standards, with aid groups saying 40,000 people live in shoddy structures.
But authorities appeared to rule out structural issues in the latest collapse, in a neighbourhood known for its bars and nightlife. “There was no danger notice for this building, and it is not in a neighbourhood identified as having substandard housing,” said Mirmand.
Further back in Marseille’s history, eight people were killed in a 1981 building collapse, five in a 1985 explosion and four in a 1996 gas blast that demolished a seven-storey building.