A massive gas explosion caused buildings to burst into flames in France’s capital on Wednesday leaving 24 people injured, four of them critically.
Flames leapt 100ft high in central Paris’ 5th arrondissement, close to the historic Pantheon monument and the Latin Quarter.
In the immediate aftermath, debris littered the street, as people stood around, looking stunned by the force of the explosion about 5pm local time (4pm GMT).
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 as Paris bars and restaurants celebrated the summer solstice with a city-wide annual music festival.
One man told France Info public radio: “It was shocking. It’s a disaster.”
Police told people to avoid the Val de Grâce area after the facade of a building collapsed and the fire appeared to have spread to neighbouring buildings.
Explosion à Paris: sept personnes en situation d'urgence absolue et neuf en urgence relative pic.twitter.com/FrVOKrkA39
— BFMTV (@BFMTV) June 21, 2023
A student at Ecole des Mines on Boulevard Saint-Michel told Le Parisien newspaper: “I was in front of the Val de Grâce, I heard a huge boom and I saw a ball of fire 20 or 30m high.
“And the building collapsed with a huge noise. I smelled gas, but took several minutes to come to my senses.”
A Paris police official told the local media 24 people were injured, including four in critical condition and 20 with less severe injuries sustained mainly when they were blown off their feet by the blast.
Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said one building housed a private school, the Paris American Academy. Founded in 1965, it offers teaching in fashion design, interior design, fine arts and creative writing.
BFMTV and Le Figaro reported police sources saying that at least four people were in a critical condition.
Jema Halbert, who owns a butcher’s shop close to the explosion site, said she went upstairs to fetch something, adding: “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.
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.
An emergency services spokesman said: “The explosion was in the Rue Saint-Jacques.
“After the detonation, the façade of a building collapsed. Numerous fire engines and ambulances are at the scene.”
The French capital has been plighted by fires caused by a faulty gas supply in recent years.
In 2019, two firefighters and a Spanish woman were killed by a huge blast at a bakery.
The emergency services were responding to a gas leak when a dramatic explosion occurred, also injuring 47 other people.
It happened near the Paris Opera – an area hugely popular with tourists.