Risk of Explosion Prevents Search for Victims in Norway Apartment Building Collapse

The risk of a gas explosion and further collapse was preventing a search for five people feared dead in a rock slide that wrecked an apartment building in western Norway, police said Thursday.

Geologists said as much as 7,300 tons of stone — some of it in huge slabs — slid down a steep hillside near downtown Aalesund in the early hours of Wednesday. The rocks slammed into the back of the six-story building, causing the lower floors to collapse as the whole structure was jolted up to 23 feet forward. Fifteen residents were taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

Firefighters have been spraying water onto the debris, seeking to control gas burning off from a huge buried propane tank, to keep it from exploding or spreading fire through the rest of the building, some 220 miles northwest of Oslo.

• Click here to view photos.

At a news conference on Thursday, district police Chief Arne Karoliussen said it was still too dangerous to send people into the twisted and damaged building to search for the five residents unaccounted for.

Karoliussen said they must wait for the propane gas to burn out, and to be sure the building is structurally safe.

"The gas flame has been burning for a long time," he said. "It hasn't gone out yet, and as long as there is gas in that tank, there is a danger of explosion.

"The building structure itself, we can see, may still be moving," Karoliussen said. "The building is unstable."

He said the evacuation of nearby homes remained in force, and that it was not clear when residents could return.

District geologist Einar Anda said as much as 10,600 cubic feet of stone slid down the mountain, meaning up to 7,300 tons of stone crashed into the building, which was completed in 2003.

Thousands of other homes in mountainous Norway are built below hillsides or in space blasted into mountainsides, so officials said they must find out what happened to prevent similar accidents elsewhere.