REIMS, France (AP) — A possible gas explosion ripped off the side of a five-story residential building in France's Champagne country on Sunday, killing at least two people and injuring 14 others, officials said. Search teams extracted a victim's body as they pored over the rubble in a hunt for possible survivors.
More than 100 rescue workers, firefighters, sniffer-dog squads and bomb and gas experts rushed to the gutted building in a subsidized housing complex in the city of Reims, east of Paris, officials said. Heaps of debris spilled out of the building onto a grassy esplanade below.
"The explosion of a residential building in Reims is a terrible drama," the office of French President Francois Hollande said in a statement, conveying his condolences to the victims' relatives.
The Interior Ministry also issued a statement saying two people died and 14 people were injured.
"We don't know the cause of the explosion. It was probably due to gas," Reims mayor Adeline Hazan said at the scene. "We know two people are dead — we don't know their identities yet," she said, adding that the survivors were taken to hospital.
"These are not definite numbers, because we are looking for another two to five people," Hazan said. An official investigation was under way to determine the cause, she said. Authorities insisted that the two people known to have died were adults.
Witnesses described a powerful blast.
"The explosion was very strong, like a sonic boom from a fighter plane. We had been playing football on a field about 30 meters (100 feet) away, and ran to the scene," housing project resident Abdel Kader said. "The building had fallen like a house of cards ... 30 seconds after that we saw a man calling for help, he was on a slab. His legs were caught."
"Later, he died," Abdel Kader, a 27-year-old job seeker who declined to provide his family name, said.
Michel Bernard, the top government official in Reims, said the building dated to the 1960s. About 10 of the 40 or so apartments were affected on the end of the rectangular building, he said.
Late in the day, authorities deployed backhoes to help clear away the rubble.
The precariousness of some buildings has come to light internationally in recent days following the collapse Wednesday of an eight-story building in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where at least 362 people have been confirmed to have died. Officials said three floors of the building, which had housed garment factories, had been built illegally.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this story from Paris.