Residents are believed to be buried under the rubble, while firefighters work to douse the flames in the aftermath of the blast.
Local officials say eight people are not responding to calls and are believed to be under the rubble of two buildings that collapsed in an explosion near a port in the southern French city of Marseille.
More than 100 firefighters worked against the clock to extinguish the flames deep in the ruins of the five-storey building, but after more than 17 hours “the situation has not yet stabilized,” Marseille prosecutor Dominique Laurens said at a Sunday evening news conference. .
She said in a press conference that the collapse caused a fire that complicated rescue efforts and investigations and was not controlled.
Lawrence said police had not yet confirmed the apparent disappearance of a ninth person who lived in a nearby building. Five people were slightly injured in the collapse, which occurred just before 1 am (2200 GMT).
Lorenz said the cause of the explosion is not yet known.
Television footage showed clouds of smoke billowing from the rubble as firefighters tried to douse the flames and sniffer dogs were used to try to locate the victims.
“We have nothing, not even an ID card. We have lost everything,” said a man who gave his name only as Roland in an interview with local newspaper La Provence.
He managed to get out of the building at 15 Tivoli Street with his wife and two children before collapsing with an adjacent building. A third building partially collapsed.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who visited the site, said 30 buildings in the area had been evacuated.
The mayor of Marseille, Benoit Bayan, said two buildings that shared walls with the collapsed building were partially demolished before one of them later collapsed, another complication in the search and rescue operation. The buildings were among the vacated buildings.
Drones and sensors have been used to scan the landscape for signs of life. The attorney general said the burning wreckage was so hot that the dogs on the firefighter team could not work until Sunday afternoon, though the smoke still bothered them.
“We can’t intervene in a very classical way,” Darmanin said during a morning visit to the site. He said the fire started a few meters away under piles of debris and that the water and foam posed a danger to the victims’ survival.
An involuntary injury investigation was opened, at least initially to avoid possible criminal intent. Attorney General Lorenz said a gas explosion was among the pathways to be examined. But starting the probe was also limited by the heat of the fire.
Firefighters, aided by urban rescue experts, worked all night and all day Sunday in a slow race against time. The careful operation aimed to keep the firefighters safe, to prevent further harm to people potentially trapped under the rubble and not to compromise the nearby, already partially collapsed, vulnerable buildings.
Attorney General Lorenz said the firefighters were “in a really complicated situation, and they pose a danger to them.” She said work is progressing but with safety precautions.
“We heard an explosion…a very powerful explosion that made us jump, and that’s it,” said Marie Serrett, who was among the evacuees. “We looked out the window at what was happening. We saw smoke, stones and people running.”
The collapsed building is located on a narrow street less than a kilometer (half a mile) from Marseille’s famous old port, adding to the difficulties for firefighters and rescue workers.
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