Rescue workers in Marseilles, France, have recovered a sixth body from the rubble of a collapsed apartment building as emergency services battled difficult conditions to look for missing people.
More than 24 hours after a suspected explosion at the building, where people had reported a strong smell of gas, dozens of rescue workers and dogs worked among the debris and rubble as a fire still smouldered underneath.
A huge blast at 12.40am local time on Sunday morning brought down the four-storey residential building in the Mediterranean port city.
The cause of the explosion is still to be determined, but investigators are examining the possibility it was a gas leak. Five people in a neighbouring building sustained minor injuries.
The French housing minister, Olivier Klein, said the discovery of the bodies was “gruesome, difficult and dramatic”.
Mr Klein said at the scene earlier on Monday that four bodies had been found. But within hours the emergency services announced that rescue workers had found a fifth and then a sixth victim.
Visiting Marseilles, he said the role of the government was to support the victims, their families and those evacuated from their homes.
Mr Klein said rescue operations were continuing with “care and determination” and 40 buildings near the site had been evacuated.
Marseille’s mayor, Benoît Payan, said rescue workers were still optimistic they could find survivors. “There is still hope, and as long as there is hope, we will not stop,” he said at the scene of the disaster.
Mr Payan ordered the town hall’s flags to be flown at half-mast and books of condolence will be opened for locals to pay their respects to the victims.
Lionel Mathieu, the commander of the city’s fire department, said his team was waging a “battle against time”. He added: “The fire has not reached all parts, so there is hope that some people are still alive.”
Emergency workers continued rescue operations with the help of a crane and lights, but a persistent fire beneath the rubble hampered their work, making it difficult for firefighters to deploy sniffer dogs to detect more victims or survivors.
The narrow street also made the work more challenging.
Rubble and remains from the building must be carefully preserved for police to carry out an investigation into what caused the blast. So far 350 sq metres of rubble has been cleared.
“Work continues to identify” the victims and experts have started work on determining the cause of the explosion, investigators from the prosecutor’s office said. City prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation.
On Monday evening, a prayer vigil was held at a church near the site of the explosion.
“Hope, even though it is dwindling, must remain until the end,” the Cardinal-archbishop of Marseilles, Jean-Marc Aveline, told the congregation.
On Sunday, before the discovery of the bodies, the local prosecutor, Dominique Laurens, said eight people “were not responding to phone calls”.
A ninth person living in a neighbouring building who had been feared missing has since been in touch with relatives, the prosecutor’s office said. – Guardian