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Three die in French building blast

A possible gas explosion which ripped off the side of a five-storey residential building in France's Champagne country has killed at least three people and injured 14 others.

More than 100 rescue workers, firefighters, sniffer-dog squads and bomb and gas experts were deployed to the gutted building in a subsidised housing complex in the city of Reims, east of Paris, said officials.

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.

Michel Bernard, the top government official in Reims, said crews searching for survivors turned up the body of a woman under the rubble this afternoon, raising the death toll to three. He said it was unlikely that the toll would rise any higher.

Through most of the day, authorities had said at least two people had died. One person was taken to hospital with serious, but not life-threatening injuries, and another 13 people had minor injuries, said officials.

"We don't know the cause of the explosion. It was probably due to gas," Reims mayor Adeline Hazan said at the scene.

An official investigation is under way to determine the cause, she said. Authorities say the three people known to have died were adults.

Witnesses described a powerful blast. Housing project resident Abdel Kader said: "The explosion was very strong, like a sonic boom from a fighter plane. We had been playing football on a field about 30 metres (100ft) away, and ran to the scene. The building had fallen like a house of cards.

"Thirty seconds after that we saw a man calling for help, he was on a slab. His legs were caught. Later, he died."


From Belfast Telegraph