BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A natural gas explosion wrecked a tall apartment building in the Argentine city of Rosario on Tuesday, killing at least eight people, injuring 60 and causing officials to evacuate much of the downtown. Officials said 19 people were unaccounted for.
Dozens of people were trapped for a time in the upper floors of the burning building as a plume of smoke billowed up over the country's third-largest city. The building's front and back facades were ripped open, exposing the shattered remains of apartments inside.
Firefighters working from above and below pulled people out of windows and off balconies as the bottom floors burned. The explosion damaged other buildings for blocks around, and fearing a collapse, police closed buildings and schools in a five-block radius.
Rosario Mayor Monica Fein confirmed the death toll and said the blast was likely caused by a gas leak. Fein said 19 people were on a list of missing.
"We're working with our best teams and continue looking under rubble," Fein said. "We have information that shows that this was clearly an issue with the gas."
Some survivors were outraged and were shown on local television venting their anger on the streets. They said they reported a gas leak about 40 minutes before the blast, which happened at 9:30 a.m., but said their warning calls went unanswered.
Litoral Gas company spokesman Jose Maria Gonzalez denied the claims. The company cut off gas flow to much of downtown after the blast.
The explosion partially destroyed the three buildings in the 10-story residential complex leaving it in serious danger of collapse. The fire took three hours to extinguish, firefighters said.
Buildings were damaged for several blocks surrounding the blast, which sent bricks and glass and cement crashing onto the street. Eleven schools were evacuated, and several shops and other apartment buildings were damaged.
National Security Secretary Sergio Berni offered the services of the border police and coast guard to help local authorities.
Santa Fe Gov. Antonio Bonfatti said a judge was already investigating the blast.
"The victims are a source of immense pain to all of us, but also to the people who have lost it all," Bonfatti said. "We're here for them."
Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, who was born in Rosario, sent his condolences through his foundation.
"Sending strength and lots of energy to the family members of the victims of today's regrettable tragedy," Messi said.