By Juliette Jabkhiro and Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) – A blast ripped through a street in the busy Latin Quarter of central Paris on Wednesday, injuring about 30 people, starting fires, and collapsing the facade of a building housing a design school popular with foreign students.
Rescue workers were searching for two missing people feared buried under rubble, authorities said.
Witnesses described a deafening explosion and a giant fireball that rose several stories high on the Rue Saint-Jacques, in the 5th arrondissement not far from the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral and Luxembourg Gardens.
Rubble from the building in which the Paris American Academy is located lay strewn across street.
At least 29 people were injured, including four who are in a critical condition, police said.
Soldiers helped secure a safety perimetre around the scene.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it was too early to say what caused the blast.
But the local deputy mayor, Edouard Civel, referred to a gas explosion in a Twitter post and witnesses told BFM TV there had been a strong smell of gas moments before the blast.
“The shop shook violently, it felt like bomb blast,” said Rahman Oliur who manages a food shop a few doors down the street from the American Academy.
Bar worker Khal Ilsey said he heard a “huge explosion” before running into the street and seeing a violent blaze at the end of the street.
RUBBLE AND FIRE
The blast occurred at 4.55 p.m. local time (1455 GMT), just as workers were heading home. The area is frequented by tourists and foreign students in the early summer but there was no immediate indication that foreigners were among the missing or wounded.
Several nearby building were evacuated. More than two hours after the explosion, first aiders were still treating residents for shock. One woman fainted in the street.
Paris Prosecutor Laure Beccuau said early indications were that the blast originated inside the building. Investigators would look into whether building conditions were in breach of regulations or if an individual had acted without due care.
More than 200 firefighters were involved in the emergency response. TV images showed firefighters manning hoses and aiming jets of water at the blaze while a plume of thick black smoke billowed into the sky.
Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said later that the blaze had been brought under control.
Rue Saint-Jacques in the 5th arrondissement of central Paris leads from the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral to the Sorbonne University and the Val de Grace military hospital and is a few blocks from the popular Jardin du Luxembourg.
The Latin Quarter is famed as the home to many expatriate and French writers, musicians and other artists over the years.
“I was at home writing…I thought it was a bomb,” said art historian Monique Mosser, adding that many of the windows in her building had been blown out by the blast’s shockwave.
“A neighbour knocked on the door and told me that the fire brigade were asking us to evacuate as quickly as possible. I grabbed my laptop, my phone. I didn’t even think to take get my medication.”
In January 2019, a gas leak caused an explosion which killed 4 people and injured 66 in the 9th arrondissement. In April tha year, a fire broke out in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, destroying much of the roof and causing other damage before it was extinguished.
(Reporting by Michel Rose, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Tassilo Hummel, Juliette Jabkhiro, Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Jean-Michel Belot, Tassilo Hummel and Angus MacSwan)
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