PARIS: A powerful gas explosion tore through a building in central Paris on Saturday, killing two firefighters and a Spanish woman, injuring dozens of people and badly damaging nearby apartments, officials said.
A police source said the explosion tore apart a bakery on the rue Trevise in the Grands Boulevards district. The force of the blast shattered nearby storefronts and rocked buildings hundreds of metres away, witnesses said.
The explosion came with the city on edge during the latest "yellow vest" anti-government demonstrations, which have often degenerated into violence and vandalism in Paris and other cities in recent weeks.
Cars were overturned by the blast and glass and rubble was strewn across large swathes of the street after the explosion gutted the lower part of the building. Dozens of residents were treated by rescue workers on the street.
Around 200 firefighters were mobilised to battle the fire that broke out after the blast and evacuate victims and residents in the area, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters at the scene.
Besides the two dead firefighters, 47 other people were injured in the blast, 10 of them seriously, the Paris prosecutor's office said.
A source in the Spanish foreign ministry said a woman who was holidaying with her husband in Paris died in hospital after the blast while another Spanish national was also injured.
Around 100 police officers blocked off several streets in the area, home to restaurants and tourist attractions including the Musee Grevin wax museum and the popular Rue des Martyrs.
An eyewitness who was staying at a hotel nearby said he saw a huge fire erupt in the building blown out by the blast.
"There was broken glass everywhere, storefronts were blown out and windows were shattered up to the third and fourth floors," said 38-year-old David Bangura.
He said that as he approached the scene, a woman was crying for help from the first floor of a building: "Help us, help us, we have a child".
Two helicopters landed on the nearby Place de l'Opera to evacuate victims.
"LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE"
The shockwave was felt as far as four blocks away, Commander Eric Moulin of the Paris fire service said, adding that rescuers were still searching for other victims.
Firefighters had been responding to an alert of a gas leak at the site when the explosion occurred, Paris prosector Remy Heitz said at the scene.
"First there was a gas leak and the firefighters arrived, then there was an explosion that caused the fire," Heitz said.
Dozens of tourists, suitcases in hand, were evacuated from the many nearby hotels in the area, a popular weekend shopping destination for locals and visitors alike.
Other residents were in bathrobes or quickly dressing in the street as police helicopters circled overhead.
"We were sleeping when we heard the noise, it sounded like an earthquake," a teenager who lives on a nearby street told AFP.
"We came downstairs and we saw a building on fire," her brother said.
Many homes and buildings in Paris use gas for heating and cooking, though explosions due to leaks are relatively rare.