MOSCOW (AFP) – Rescuers hunted for survivors yesterday in the rubble of a Russian apartment building hit by a New Year’s Eve gas explosion, but found only bodies as the number of confirmed dead rose to 18.
Nearly two dozen people were still missing following the explosion, which destroyed 35 apartments in the high-rise in the city of Magnitogorsk in the Ural mountains.
Braving temperatures that fell as low as minus 27 degrees Celsius, rescue workers were combing through mangled concrete and metal.
Their efforts were given a boost on Tuesday when a 10-month-old baby boy was found alive and reunited with his mother. But hope was starting to fade of finding many more survivors.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said in a statement that as of 12:15 Moscow time (0915 GMT) the bodies of 18 people, including two children, had been recovered from the partly collapsed building.
Six people, including two children, had been rescued and 23 people were still missing.
“Work at the scene is continuing,” it said, noting that 800 square metres of debris – loaded into 50 dump trucks – had been cleared from the site in the last 24 hours.
The explosion, believed to have been caused by a gas leak, tore through the nine-storey building in Magnitogorsk, an industrial town nearly 1,700 kilometres east of Moscow, in the early hours of Monday.
Witnesses described a “wave of fire” from the explosion and said the blast was strong enough to shatter windows in nearby buildings.
The Soviet-era apartment block was home to about 1,100 people and the blast left dozens homeless over the New Year – the biggest holiday of the year in Russia.
Residents left homeless by the explosion were being housed in a nearby school and helped by a team of psychologists.
Yesterday was a day of mourning in the region, with flags lowered and entertainment events cancelled, in a country where New Year’s Eve celebrations are an annual highlight.
Mourners laid flowers and lit candles near the site of the building.
“We are all grieving,” a middle-aged man told Rossiya 24 television. “Nearly everyone in the city knew someone” caught up in the accident, he said.
Investigators said there is no reason to suspect foul play in the blast.
Rumours have swirled on social media of a possible terror link, especially after a minibus explosion on Tuesday that killed three people.
“No traces of explosives or their components have been found” at the scene, the federal Investigative Committee said in a statement.
Local authorities have said the minibus explosion was the result of leaking gas tanks and that there was no link between the two blasts.
Gas explosions are relatively common in Russia, where much of the infrastructure dates back to the Soviet era and safety requirements are often ignored.
Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin told Russian television that gas equipment in the Magnitogorsk building had not been checked for more than six months prior to the explosion.
Located in the mineral-rich southern Urals region, Magnitogorsk, with a population of more than 400,000 people, is home to one of the country’s largest steel producers.