As many as eight people were feared dead Tuesday after two dilapidated apartment blocks collapsed in the southern French city of Marseille, where a first body was pulled out of the wreckage.
Rescuers worked throughout the night looking for victims in the rubble of two buildings which collapsed suddenly on Monday morning in Noailles, a working-class district in the heart of the Mediterranean port city.
Sniffer dogs were still searching through the 15-metre (50-foot) pile of wreckage on Rue d'Aubagne, a narrow shopping street which now resembles the scene of an earthquake.
A completely flattened car was dug out as rescuers worked to shift the rubble, an indication of the force with which the building came crashing down in what witnesses said was a matter of seconds.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said late Monday that between five to eight people were missing — five residents and three other people who may have been visiting one of the buildings.
The second apartment block, which was in such a bad state that it had been condemned, was boarded up and in theory unoccupied, according to officials.
‘The most important thing is to save lives,’ Castaner said at the scene.
‘During the first clearing operations we've found some pockets of air that means we still have some hope of finding and identifying a survivor,’ he said.
The first victim — a man who had yet to be identified -- was pulled from the wreckage Tuesday, said prosecutor Xavier Tarabeux.
Google Maps images taken in recent months showed the two collapsed buildings had large visible cracks in their facades.
People had been living in nine of the 10 apartments at number 65, while a shop occupied the ground floor.
A young bar waiter, with tears in his eyes, watched the scene and worried about an Italian woman who lived in the building. He has had no news of her since Monday.
‘She was a great girl, she used to come and study at the bar,’ he said, without giving his name.
Sophie Dorbeaux, who lived in the now-demolished 65 rue d'Aubagne, meanwhile told AFP she had left on Sunday night to stay with her parents because ‘for days, the doors of some of the apartments wouldn't close’.
‘It could have been me,’ the 25-year-old philosophy student said, visibly shaken.
Marseille city authorities, which have evacuated and rehoused 100 residents from nearby buildings as a precaution, believe heavy rain may have led to the buildings collapsing.
But the incident — rare in a major Western city — has already sparked a political row over the quality of housing available to Marseille's poorest residents.
The neighbourhood is home to many buildings in a similarly poor condition, some of them run by slum landlords.
‘It's the homes of the poor that are falling down, and that's not a coincidence,’ said local lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing France Unbowed party.
Marseille authorities launched a vast upgrade plan for the city centre in 2011.
But a 2015 government report said some 100,000 Marseille residents were living in housing that was dangerous to their health or security.
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