UPDATED: DEC 6, 2019 AT 20:43

Gas explosion in a block of flats, emergency situation in Prešov

Five victims and 40 injured reported so far but the numbers are not final.

A high-rise block of flats in one of the neighbourhoods of Prešov, eastern Slovakia, is on fire after a gas explosion occurred inside the building shortly after noon on Friday, December 6.

Dozens of firemen have been deployed to the site where, according to local reporters, people are still trapped in the building, which is inaccessible after part of the stairway inside collapsed.

Five people have been killed and 40 injured. The Korzár daily reported that one person died after falling from a collapsing balcony.

Speaking on the site after 18:00, PM Peter Pellegrini said that the number of casualties and injured is likely to go up as the rescuers continue their work.

“Five casualties have been officially confirmed, but it is also clear, according to the eyewitnesses, that that number will increase further,” Pellegrini said.

The police have already launched a criminal prosecution against an unknown offender for endangerment.

Risk of collapse

The Fire and Rescue service said that in the first hours after the incident there was a risk the building might collapse.

However, an expert on panel constructions from the Andrej Bartók Slovak University of Technology believes the block of flats cannot collapse due to the ferroconcrete panels from which the building is constructed.

“I do not think it will collapse because these blocks of flats have a so-called box construction. The panels are set perpendicular to themselves,” he explained, as quoted by Korzár.

PM Pellegrini confirmed at 20:00, after a session of the crisis staff, that the building may have to be dismantled completely after the fire.

Everyone was evacuated within three hours

60 professional firemen and 25 voluntary firemen were working at the spot on the tragedy. They succeeded to evacuate all people from the flats they were able to visually identify by 15:16, three hours after the explosion. The armed forces were also called in to the site, they worked on securing the surroundings of the burning building.

“The building is completely on fire from the sixth floor up,” presidium of the fire-fighting and rescue units informed on Facebook at that point. The top three floors were completely burnt down and the roof is completely open. The explosion destroyed staircase and that’s why it was not possible to access the building from the inside.

“I came home after night-shift and after I dealt with some issues in town,” said witness of the tragedy Silvia Hrebenárová, as quoted by Korzár. There were some groundworks ongoing, she smelled gas at the entrance so she returned to tell the workers. He told her that it is under control and one went with her to her flat. She could not smell gas there so she went to bed.

She lives on the tenth floor, and was helped out of her burnt flat by firefighters using a forklift platform. Everything she had burnt down in her flat.

Prior to the incident, there was the odour of gas in the building. Shortly after that the Slovak Gas Industry (SPP) gas distribution utility received a report about damage caused to the gas pipes during the works outside the building, SPP confirmed as reported by Sme. They did not make a direct link to the explosion yet, though.

The explosion has also broken the windows of surrounding buildings. After dark, the police went out to evacuate also people in the surrounding buildings that were cut off of electricity.

There were severe traffic complications in the city due to the disaster.

Prešov Mayor Alena Turčanová announced an emergency situation for the city at 12:35.

PM and several ministers on site

Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and several ministers rushed to the site of the tragedy which has been labelled the worst of this kind in Slovakia in nearly half a century years. A similar tragedy occurred in Prešov in 1974 when gas exploded at Zápotocký street. Nine people were killed then.

President Zuzana Čaputová expressed her sorrow on Facebook and thanked firefighters and rescuers. “In thoughts, I am with all people who would have to cope with the consequences [of the tragedy] and loss of the beloved ones.”

“Slovakia has not faced such a serious fire of a residential building with that many injured and damages.”

PM Peter Pellegrini

The president sent €5,000 to the fundraising for the victims. She also offered the accommodation facility of her office in the village of Tatranska Javorina to several families to stay over the Christmas holidays or, if needed, longer.

Interior Minister Denisa Sakova, speaking to journalists on the site, said that the tragedy is believed to have been caused by an explosion of gas in the shaft on the ninth floor. Everything all the way up to the top, 12th floor, caught fire in result.

The firemen could not make it to the flats due to the collapsed stairway, and they laboriously made their way up the elevator shaft from the first to the sixth floor. They couldn’t make it further than the seventh floor, Sakova said as reported by the Sme daily.

“It was an exceptionally demanding intervention,” she said. The rescuers have been unable to use the helicopters due to the freezing rain. For the same reason, they also had difficulties operating the forklift platforms. At first, the firemen were unable to use their equipment due to the concrete panels scattered around after the explosion. They first needed to remove them and cut down the surrounding trees to be able to access the building.

Pellegrini told journalists that the commander of the fire rescuers has not seen a fire like that in his long career.

“Slovakia has not faced such a serious fire of a residential building with that many injured and damages,” Pellegrini said as quoted by Sme. He also said the government will aid the city financially, to help the involved families handle this tragedy.

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