MARSEILLE, France — Eight people were missing after the building they lived in collapsed in an explosion early Sunday near the port of Marseille, leaving mounds of burning debris that were hampering rescue operations, officials said.
More than 100 firefighters worked through the day to extinguish flames deep within the rubble of the five-story building, but more than 17 hours later the situation was “not yet stabilized,” the Marseille prosecutor, Dominique Laurens, said at a news conference on Sunday evening.
The cause of the blast was not immediately clear. Ms. Laurens said a gas explosion was a possibility.
The building that collapsed was on a narrow street in central Marseille, less than half a mile from the city’s iconic old port. Some 30 buildings in the area were evacuated, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who visited the site.
The noise from the explosion, which occurred shortly before 1 a.m., resounded in other neighborhoods. Nearby streets were blocked off.
Marie Ciret, one of the people evacuated, said she had heard “a very strong explosion which made us jump.” She looked outside and “saw smoke, stones, and people running.”
Marseille’s mayor, Benoit Payan, said two buildings that shared walls with the one that collapsed had been partially brought down, with one later caving in.
Officials described the rescue operation as a delicate one, meant to keep firefighters safe, prevent further harm to people potentially trapped in the rubble and not compromise vulnerable buildings nearby, including the ones that had partly collapsed. Ms. Laurens, the prosecutor, said the firefighters were “really in a complicated situation, dangerous for them.”
“We’re trying to drown the fire while preserving the lives of eventual victims under the rubble,” Lionel Mathieu, the commander of the Marseille fire brigade, said during a televised briefing.
Ms. Laurens said the police had yet to confirm the apparent disappearance of a ninth person who lived in a building next to the one that collapsed. Five people were known to have suffered minor injuries from the collapse.
Drones and probes were being used to examine the scene for signs of life. The burning debris was too hot for the firefighters’ canine team to work until Sunday afternoon, Ms. Laurens said.
A crane was brought in to clear rubble. At one point, firefighters could be seen in TV footage hosing parts of the debris from a window in a nearby apartment building as plumes of smoke rose skyward.
“Firefighters are gauging minute by minute the best way to put out the fire,” Mr. Payan, the mayor, said.
“We must prepare ourselves to have victims,” he said.
In 2018, two buildings in the center of Marseille collapsed, killing eight people. Those buildings were poorly maintained, but that was not true of the building that collapsed on Sunday, the interior minister said.
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