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Toll rises to six in French building collapse

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Toll rises to six in French building collapse
Firefighters install tarps as they prepare to remove a body from rubble at 'rue Tivoli' after a building collapsed in the street, in Marseille, southern France, on April 10, 2023. Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP

Rescue workers on Monday recovered a sixth body from the rubble of a collapsed apartment in France's Marseille, according to local emergency services, as firefighters raced against the clock to find two people still missing.

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Search and rescue teams continued working through the night on Monday, with hopes of finding more people trapped under the rubble nearly 48 hours after a building collapsed in central Marseille.

On Monday afternoon, the remains of two more bodies were discovered, bringing the death toll to six so far, according to local emergency services. The search kept going on Tuesday morning for the other two people who might still be trapped in the ruins of the building.

"Work continues to identify," the victims, investigators from the prosecutor's office said in an evening statement.

On Monday evening, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Marseille, Jean-Marc Aveline, presided over a prayer vigil, which was attended by hundreds of people in the church of Saint-Michel, near the site of the tragedy, to pay tribute to the victims and support the rescue teams. "Hope, even if it is dwindling, must remain until the end," the Cardinal-Archbishop said, according to Ouest France.

The deputy mayor of the Mediterranean port city, Yannick Ohanessian, said rescue workers still had hope of finding survivors on Monday morning.

"Until the very end, we will believe it is possible -- even if chances become slimmer with every passing hour," he said.

The fire under the rubble has made it hard for the dogs to detect more victims or survivors.

Firefighter Adrien Schaller, who arrived on site at around 1:00 am on Monday (2300 GMT on Sunday), described painstaking work to maximise chances of finding survivors.

"The heart of the blaze is deep underneath and hard to reach with the hoses. And we can't spray too much water to avoid creating a sort of mud," he said.

Firefighters work at 'rue Tivoli' after a building collapsed in the street

Firefighters work at 'rue Tivoli' after a building collapsed in the street, in Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2023. (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)

'Race against the clock'

Rescue workers were clearing away most of the rubble with an excavator, he said, stopping as soon as they spotted an air pocket to continue the work by hand.

 "It's a race against the clock," he said.

"The fire has not reached all parts (of the building), so there is hope," said Lionel Mathieu, the commander of the city's fire department.

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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.

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.

On Monday, city prosecutors said they had opened a manslaughter investigation.

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.

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"We very quickly smelled a strong gas odour that hung around, we could still smell it this morning," she added.

Deputy mayor Yannick Ohanessian told journalists at the scene that "several witnesses have reached us this morning to say there was a suspicious smell of gas".

Evacuation

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.

READ ALSO: French housing authority charged with manslaughter after building collapse that killed eight

"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.

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