At least seven people were killed and dozens remain unaccounted for after a suspected gas explosion triggered the collapse of a section of a high-rise apartment building in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk early on New Year’s Eve.
Rescue workers braved frigid conditions through the night in an effort to locate victims.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said that 26 apartments with 46 residents were destroyed. Some 35 people remain unaccounted for.
President Vladimir Putin travelled to the city in the southern Urals later on December 31 and met with local officials before visiting some of the injured at a nearby hospital.
“It is in the character of our people, despite New Year’s festivities, to remember to think of the dead and wounded at this moment,” Putin said at the hospital.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the creation of a government commission to provide aid to the victims of the disaster.
Seven bodies were recovered from the rubble. Ambulance service officials said five people, including two children, were hospitalized.
Regional Governor Boris Dubrovsky said seven children were among the missing.
Emergency Situations Minister Yevgeny Zinichev said it would take at least 48 hours to clear the debris.
Frigid weather as cold as minus 26 degrees Celsius plus the danger that the remaining part of the building might collapse are major challenges being faced by the rescue teams, Dubrovsky said.
Special large heaters were brought in to try to keep any possible survivors from freezing to death as the rescue operations continue.
“We must work as quickly as we can since temperatures do not give us any time to linger,” Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Pavel Baryshev told journalists.
According to the regional government, the explosion took place at 6:10 a.m. local time in a complex of apartment buildings that was built in 1973 and houses some 1,100 people.
“We were sleeping and I woke up feeling I was falling down,” said Yulia Gavrilova, a survivor. “I first thought I was dreaming it. Then I woke up for real and realized that I was standing outside, the wall was not there any longer. My mother was screaming that she couldn’t breathe, and my son was screaming from another corner.”
Sixteen people were evacuated from parts of the building not directly affected by the blast, and several others were able to escape the blast on their own.
The head of the Tajik diaspora in Magnitogorsk, Abulmajid Sharipov, told RFERL that a Tajik family of five was living in an apartment in the collapsed part of the building.
Shuhrat Ulfatov, 26, was found unconscious and hospitalized after spending more than six hours under the debris in freezing cold.
The fates of his wife and three children are unclear.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said on its website that in all, 48 apartments from the third to the 10th floor in the building’s central part were damaged by the explosion.
The Investigative Committee said it has launched a probe into the explosion and dispatched investigators from its central headquarters in Moscow to Magnitogorsk.
Magnitogorsk is located some 1,700 kilometers southeast of Moscow.