MOSCOW - Rescuers hunted for survivors on Monday after a gas explosion tore through a high-rise residential building in central Russia, killing at least four people and leaving several dozen unaccounted for.
President Vladimir Putin rushed to the Urals city of Magnitogorsk, where the blast left hundreds of residents homeless in freezing temperatures on New Year’s Eve — the biggest holiday of the year in Russia.
National television showed rescue workers combing through mangled heaps of concrete and metal in temperatures of minus 18 Celsius (minus 0.4 F).
A large section of the building collapsed after the explosion around 6:00 a.m. local time (1100 GMT) at the high-rise in the industrial city of Magnitogorsk, nearly 1,700 km (1,050 miles) east of Moscow in the Ural mountains.
Officials said four people were confirmed dead and five had been taken to hospital, but that up to 40 could still be trapped under the rubble.
“I went out to have a cigarette at quarter-to-six,” a local man told Russian television. “There was a blast and a wave of fire … then people started running out.”
Other witnesses said the explosion was strong enough to shatter the windows of nearby buildings.
Russian television showed a grim-looking Putin in a black winter jacket meeting with local officials. He was also shown donning a white coat and visiting a victim in a hospital.
Senior officials, including the emergencies and health ministers, flew to Magnitogorsk to oversee the rescue operation.
Emergencies minister Yevgeny Zinichev told Putin that between 36 and 40 people could be trapped under the rubble. Regional governor Boris Dubrovsky said seven children were among the missing.
Authorities said rescue teams were to work through the night, with local temperatures expected to plunge to minus 23 Celsius (minus 9 Fahrenheit).
Officials warned that two more sections of the Soviet-era high-rise on Karl Marx Street were in danger of collapsing.
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.
The high-rise was built in 1973 and was home to around 1,100 people. Residents were evacuated to a nearby school.
Volunteers offered money, clothing and essentials to the victims, and some said they were ready to provide temporary shelter to those in need.
Dubrovsky, the local governor, said authorities planned to buy apartments for people who had lost their homes.
Staff from the local Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works (MMK), one of the country’s largest steelmakers, took part in the rescue operation.
Billionaire Viktor Rashnikov, who controls the plant, called on city residents to help the victims.
“This is our common tragedy and pain,” he said in a statement, adding that MMK would provide financial assistance to those in need.
Investigators opened a criminal probe into the accident, with the FSB security service confirming the blast had been the result of a gas explosion.
Such deadly gas explosions are relatively common in Russia, where much of the infrastructure dates back to the Soviet era and safety requirements are often ignored.