An explosion potentially caused by a gas leak ripped through a building in central Paris on Wednesday, leaving four people fighting for their lives and causing a wave of destruction, officials said.
Rescue workers were in the evening still searching the rubble for two missing individuals who had not been accounted for, according to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
He told reporters at the scene that four seriously injured victims were in a life-threatening condition, while 33 others had sustained lesser injuries.
The blast was followed by a major fire which caused the building, housing a fashion school, to collapse in a historic district of the French capital.
Images showed wreckage littering the area around the building, as the flames smouldered.
Some 70 fire trucks and 270 firefighters battled the blaze. Nine doctors were also at the scene.
The fire service had said there had been “an explosion” which had “caused the collapse of two buildings”, but police later said only one building had collapsed.
Several witnesses told AFP at the scene they had heard “a giant explosion”.
Windows as far as 400 metres (440 yards) away were shattered, AFP reporters said.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo assembled a crisis unit and wrote on Twitter: “My thoughts go first and foremost to the victims and their loved ones.”
The “violent” fire which broke out after the explosion has now been “contained”, Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said at the scene, adding that “work is still taking place under the rubble” to find any more possible victims.
The firefighters “prevented the spread of the fire to two adjoining buildings which were seriously destabilised by the explosion” and “were evacuated”, Nunez added.
The blast was caused by a “gas explosion”, the district’s mayor said on Twitter, although this was not confirmed by other officials.
Florence Berthout, mayor of the 5th district in central Paris, said the main building affected is a private fashion school — called Paris American Academy — adjoining the former Val-de-Grace military hospital.
According to the mayor, the noise of the “quite enormous” explosion spread “in part of the district”.
An investigation into the causes of the blast was launched immediately, prosecutors said.
‘Like in the movies‘
AFP pictures taken at the site showed tall flames and smoke billowing from the building, situated at Place Alphonse-Laveran, close to the Luxembourg Gardens.
The area is at the edge of the Latin Quarter, a top tourism area.
“It was like in the movies,” said Anthony Halbert, who runs a butcher’s shop in the same street as the destroyed building.
“We heard a second explosion, less than two minutes after the first, and we watched the front of the building crumble,” he said.
Alexis, a 23-year-old student living across from the building, said he heard “a huge bang”, and then his windows were blown out.
“It was super scary, there was smoke, and debris, and leaves flying,” he said. “We didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack.”
Sarah Taheraly, who works at the nearby Institut Curie, a medical research centre, said she felt her building tremble. “It was like a muffled sound,” she said.
Another witness, working at the nearby Catholic education secretariat SGEC, said: “There was a big noise. I fell off my chair during a meeting, and so did others.”
One of his colleagues had noticed a strong smell of gas in the street just before the explosion, said the man who declined to give his name.
However, officials said they did not have enough evidence to determine the cause of the blast with certainty.
Paris prosecutor, Laure Beccuau told reporters that “we are obviously counting on the lightly injured people to provide the investigation with input so we can understand what happened”.
There have been several incidents of gas-related blasts in the French capital.
The explosion recalled a massive blast that rocked Paris in January 2019, when a suspected leak in a buried gas pipe destroyed a building on the Rue de Trevise in the ninth district, killing four people including two firefighters.
The shockwave blew out scores of nearby windows, and dozens of families were forced to evacuate their homes for months. Much of the street still remains off limits four years after the disaster.
Paris city hall has been charged with involuntary manslaughter over that blast, and legal wrangling over the exact cause continues.