By ANGELA CHARLTON and ALEX TURNBULL from the Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — A strong explosion rocked a building in Paris’ Left Bank on Wednesday, injuring at least 24 people, igniting a fire that sent smoke soaring over the French capital’s monuments and prompting an evacuation of other properties, authorities said. Police were investigating suspicions that a gas leak caused the blast.
The facade of the building in the 5th arrondissement collapsed, and officials said rescuers were searching for two people who might be trapped inside. The explosion happened near the historic Val de Grace military hospital, in one of the most upscale neighborhoods of the French capital.
Some 270 firefighters were involved in putting out the flames and 70 emergency vehicles were sent to the scene. The fire was contained but not yet extinguished Wednesday evening, as Paris bars and restaurants celebrated the summer solstice with a citywide annual music festival.
Sirens wailed as ambulances passed through the neighborhood and police initially cordoned off the street, rue Saint-Jacques. By evening, smoke had stopped pouring out of the building where the explosion occurred.
“It is possible that overnight we will find bodies or people alive,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said from the scene.
District Mayor Florence Berthout said on French TV channel BFM that firefighters were searching for two people believed to have been inside the building at the time of the blast. “The explosion was extremely violent,” she said, describing pieces of glass still falling from buildings.
Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said the building housed a private school, the Paris American Academy. The school was founded in 1965 and offers teaching in fashion design, interior design, fine arts and creative writing.
A Paris police official told the Associated Press that 24 people were injured, including four in critical condition and 20 with less severe injuries. The injuries were sustained mainly when people were blown off their feet by the blast, the official said.
Jema Halbert, who owns a butcher’s shop close to the explosion site, said she went upstairs to fetch something, and “I heard a ‘boom’. … So then I went downstairs, where I found my husband in shock, dust by the till and I thought, wait, there’s a problem. So I stepped outside and I saw big flames and I said, it’s impossible. I called my daughter. She was crying. She was shocked.”
Edouard Civel, deputy mayor of the 5th arrondissement, attributed the explosion to a gas leak, but other officials were more cautious. A judicial official said a gas explosion was one of the possible causes under investigation.
Renowned Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras was among the witnesses at the scene .
“A huge noise and the house was shaken like this,” the 90-year-old told the AP, visibly rattled. ”“We thought, what is going on? We thought it could be the sky (a storm). … It’s not something to laugh about.”
The Paris prosecutor said an investigation was opened into aggravated involuntary injury and the probe would examine whether the explosion stemmed from a suspected violation of safety rules. Prosecutor Laure Beccuau said investigators would seek to “determine whether or not there was failure to respect a rule or individual imprudence that led to the explosion.”
Firefighters prevented the fire from igniting two neighboring buildings that were “seriously destabilized” by the explosion and had to be evacuated, Nunez said. The explosion blew out several windows in the area, witnesses and the police chief said.
With more than 2 million people densely packed within the city limits and historic, sometimes ageing, infrastructure, Paris is not a stranger to gas explosions. A January 2019 blast in the 9th district killed four people and left dozens injured.
After Wednesday’s blast, a student at the private school said he was in a building about 100 meters (yards) away when the explosion hit.
“I was sitting on the windowsill, and we moved 2 meters away from the window, carried by a small blast (from the explosion) and huge fear,” Achille, whose last name was not given, told BFM television.
“We came down (from the building) and saw the flames,” he said. “The police gave us great support and we evacuated quickly.”
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, John Leicester in Le Pecq, France and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.