Rescue workers on Monday recovered a fourth body from the rubble of a collapsed apartment in France’s Marseille, a cabinet minister said, as firefighters raced against the clock to find four people still missing.
More than 24 hours after a suspected explosion at the building, where residents reported a strong smell of gas, dozens of civil defence staff and sniffer dogs worked among the debris as a fire still smouldered.
“Four bodies have been found,” Housing Minister Olivier Klein said, at the site of the accident.
But the deputy mayor of the Mediterranean port city, Yannick Ohanessian, said rescue workers still had hope of finding survivors.
“Until the very end, we will believe it is possible — even if chances become slimmer with every passing hour,” he said.
Lionel Mathieu, the commander of the city’s fire department, said his team was waging a “battle against time”.
“The fire has not reached all parts (of the building), so there is hope,” he said.
The fire at the site has made it hard for the dogs to detect more victims or survivors.
On Sunday, before the discovery of the bodies, local prosecutor Dominique Laurens told reporters that eight people “were not responding to phone calls”.
Five people in a neighbouring building sustained minor injuries in the blast and collapse, which occurred around 12:40 am on Sunday (2240 GMT Saturday).
The cause of the explosion is still to be determined, but investigators are looking at the possibility it was the result of a gas leak.
Saveria Mosnier, who lives on a street near the site in the La Plaine neighbourhood, said she was sleeping when a “huge blast… shook the room”.
“I was shocked awake as if I had been dreaming,” she told AFP.
“We very quickly smelled a strong gas odour that hung around, we could still smell it this morning.”
Ohanessian, the deputy mayor, said several witnesses had reported “a suspicious smell of gas”.
Two buildings next to the destroyed property were severely damaged, with one collapsing later in the day without injuring any rescuers.
Almost 200 residents were evacuated from surrounding buildings.
The city provided some emergency shelter, and the local community also sprang into action to help coordinate housing and aid for them.
“A lot of families in the neighbourhood are afraid,” said Arnaud Dupleix, the president of a parents’ association at the nearby Tivoli elementary school.
A ninth person living in a neighbouring building had also been feared missing, but has since been in touch with relatives, the prosecutor’s office said.
In 2018, eight people were killed in Marseille when two dilapidated buildings in the working-class district of Noailles caved in.
That disaster cast a harsh light on the city’s housing standards, with aid groups saying 40,000 people were living in shoddy structures.
But authorities on Sunday appeared to rule out structural issues in the latest collapse.
“There was no danger notice for this building, and it is not in a neighbourhood identified as having substandard housing,” said Christophe Mirmand, prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhone region.