Two French firefighters and a Spanish citizen were killed, and nearly 50 people injured, in a gas explosion that gutted the ground floor of a building in a central Paris shopping district yesterday, authorities said.
The accident occurred with central Paris under security lockdown for a ninth consecutive Saturday of “yellow vest” protests (see report below).
Large parts of the capital were blocked off by riot police, although the protests have reduced in scale compared with November.
“As firefighters were looking for a gas leak in the building, a dramatic explosion took place,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said, adding that one of the firefighters had been buried under debris for several hours.
Castaner said on his Twitter feed that two firefighters had died and 10 people, including one other firefighter, had serious injuries.
Another 37 people had lighter injuries, he said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell wrote on his Twitter feed that a Spanish woman had also died in the blast.
French authorities did not immediately confirm the third death.
Spanish newspaper El Confidencial reported that the woman was a tourist visiting Paris with her husband, who was unharmed.
Just hours after the blast, thousands of yellow vest protesters marched noisily but peacefully through the Grands Boulevards shopping district of northern Paris, just a few hundred metres from the scene of the explosion.
In recent years, France has suffered a string of deadly militant attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and elsewhere but authorities quickly ruled out foul play.
“A this stage we can say it (the gas blast) is clearly an accident,” Paris prosecutor Remi Heitz told reporters.
A police source said the explosion tore apart a bakery on the Rue de Trevise, and witnesses said the force of the blast shattered nearby storefronts and rocked buildings hundreds of metres away.
Cars were overturned by the blast and glass and rubble was strewn across large swathes of the street after the explosion gutted the lower part of the building.
More than 200 firefighters joined the rescue operation and two helicopters landed on the nearby Place de l’Opera to evacuate victims.
Ambulances struggled to access the blast area because of police barriers set up to contain any violence by yellow vest protesters.
An eyewitness at a hotel nearby said he saw flames envelop the ground floor of the building blown out by the blast.
“There was broken glass everywhere, storefronts were blown out and windows were shattered up to the third and fourth floors,” said 38-year-old David Bangura.
He said that as he approached the scene, a woman was crying for help from the first floor of a building: “Help us, help us, we have a child”.
“I was sleeping and was woken up by the blast wave,” Claire Sallavuard, who lives on the Rue de Trevise, told AFP. “All the windows in the apartment exploded, doors were blown off their hinges, I had to walk on the door to leave the room, all the kids were panicking, they couldn’t get out of their room.”
“Firefighters advised us to leave but the elevator shaft had been blown out, there was no railing, nothing, and there was too much smoke,” she said.
“We were sleeping when we heard the noise, it sounded like an earthquake,” a teenager who lives on a nearby street told AFP.
“We came downstairs and we saw a building on fire,” her brother said.
Many homes and buildings in Paris use gas for heating and cooking, though explosions due to leaks are relatively rare.
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