The ‘painstaking’ search for missing people following a suspected ‘gas’ blast in Jersey will take ‘weeks, not days’, police have said.
Authorities said they believed ‘around a dozen’ people were missing following the blast which destroyed a block of flats in St Helier in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Rescuers had been searching through the night for any survivors from the ‘devastating’ explosion that flattened a low-rise apartment block, killing at least three people.
But the search for missing people found no signs of life and has now become a ‘recovery operation’, authorities revealed Sunday morning.
Robin Smith, chief of Jersey Police, said specialist teams will continue their ‘meticulous and painstaking search’ of the area in St Helier and warned it is likely to be ‘weeks’ before investigations are completed.
Emergency services had been called to Haut du Mont flats just before 4am amid reports of a major incident. Locals were woken by what sounded like an earthquake as their houses shook and windows shattered after the three-storey building collapsed ‘like a pancake’, according to Chief of Jersey Police Robin Smith.
Many rushed from their homes to the street to see the blaze had lit up the night sky, the air thick with plumes of smoke billowing from the building – which had completely crumbled – and debris strewn across the street.
Chief of Police Mr Smith today said: ‘It is with sadness that I am confirming that the search-and-rescue operation had been moved to a recovery operation. The decision was made after a detailed assessment and following the use of specialist K9 units.
‘Disaster victim identification (DVI) strategies are in place and specialist officers are surveying the scene with fire and ambulance services and tactical advisers from urban search and rescue (USAR).’
The cause of the blast is still being investigated, but a fire crew was called to the block, believed to contain six flats, on Friday at 8.36pm after residents said they could smell gas.
Chief of Jersey Police Robin Smith today said it ‘looks likely’ that the blast was a gas explosion but that currently they ‘do not know’.
The scene of an explosion and fire at a block of flats in St Helier, Jersey. At least three people have died and a dozen are missing following the blast
Specialist rescue teams at the scene of an explosion and fire at a block of flats in St Helier, Jersey
The scene at the site of the explosion in St Helier, Jersey. December 11. Emergency workers have been searching through the night after an explosion at a block of flats in Jersey left three people dead and a dozen missing
Further equipment and USAR specialists arrive to support emergency services through the night at the site of the explosion in St Helier, Jersey. December 11
Emergency personnel at the scene of an explosion and fire at a block of flats in St Helier, Jersey on December 10
Crews vowed to ‘not stop searching’ for survivors last night. Pictured: Debris strewn across the street at the site of the explosion
A search and rescue operation was launched yesterday (pictured) in an attempt to find people trapped in the rubble
Emergency services were called to Haut du Mont flats (pictured before the incident) in St Helier just before 4am yesterday
This CCTV grab shows the moment the explosion first went off in the early hours of the morning on December 10
Pictured: The site this morning. At least three people have died and a dozen are missing following the blast
Rescue dogs were used to help firefighters hunt for survivors at the Haut du Mont building, near St Helier harbour
He told the press conference that his job is to bring different participants together like the fire service and health and safety ‘so we can properly identify how this has happened’.
Asked if that involves the gas company and the housing association, he said: ‘Yes and it already is.’
Addressing questions of whether their working assumption is a gas explosion, he said: ‘You look at the pictures and I’m no expert, I look to the left (the fire chief) for the expertise who can say it looks likely that that is the case.
‘But, of course, as you often hear the police service saying, we keep all our options open. That seems likely but we do not know is the simple answer.’
Paul Brown, Jersey chief fire officer, acknowledged that something has gone ‘horribly wrong’.
Speaking at Sunday morning’s press conference, he said: ‘Something clearly has gone wrong as a building has exploded and collapsed.’
He added that it had gone ‘horribly wrong’.
Mr Brown told reporters that the fire service will be ‘co-operating fully’ with ‘honesty’ and ‘transparency’, but the main focus is currently the search operation.
Chief of Jersey Police Robin Smith said the death toll remained at three with 12 people missing.
He said: ‘This is a very sensitive area and it’s very difficult to be precise.
‘The area I can be precise on is we have three confirmed fatalities and it’s fair to say we expect to find more.
‘Previously we have said in the region of a dozen but it’s difficult to make that assessment. That’s the number we hope we do not get to but that is the number we are working to.’
The flag of Jersey will fly at half mast on the island’s official buildings ‘as a sign of respect’ for those affected by a fatal explosion in St Helier, the Government of Jersey has said.
The flags will be lowered from 8am on Monday until sunset on December 23.
An island-wide one-minute silence will also be held at 11am on Monday to give islanders a moment to ‘reflect on the incidents that have resulted in loss of life’, the government said.
Chief Fire Officer Paul Brown had previously said he could not give details of how the crew dealt with the incident, but added: ‘I know they did conduct investigations, but at the moment what I’m focused on is just the emergency response.’
Emergency personnel at the scene of an explosion and fire at a block of flats in St Helier, Jersey
Mr Smith of Jersey Police said that it was a ‘protracted incident’ that could ‘go on for days, maybe weeks’, as he warned that people should be prepared for the possibility of ‘more fatalities’.
He added: ‘It is a scene of utter devastation. It has completely collapsed. It doesn’t even look like a building was. The number one priority is working out if there’s anyone alive in that debris.’
The building was managed by Andium Homes, a States of Jersey-owned but independent company that rents out properties on the island. The blast was so powerful that British Geological Survey sensors registered it three miles away. A spokesman said: ‘The magnitude was -0.1, but it appears that most of the energy was released into the atmosphere as an airwave.’
Locals were urged to avoid the hospital’s emergency department unless absolutely necessary to ensure the resources can be adequately used to treat victims.
It has not yet been established what caused the explosion, but Jersey’s gas supplier, Island Energy, has issued a statement, reading: ‘We are working with @JsyFire to understand exactly what has happened.
‘[We] will share more information once it is available. We ask that islanders continue to follow the advice given by emergency services at this time.’
It was also revealed residents in the block called fire services last night to report an issue with the flats.
Debris is seen strewn across the street as fire crews worked in the rubble to search for the 12 people who were missing last night
Jersey Fire and Rescue Service said the wreckage contained ‘pockets of fire’ more than 12 hours after the blast yesterday
The multi-agency search effort involved a number of stages, including vacating the site for to allow dogs to enter, and the careful movement of debris
Debris was strewn across the street while smoke plumes billowed through the air, as two ‘walking wounded’ were rushed to hospital
Emergency services were called to Haut du Mont flats in St Helier, the capital of Jersey – the largest of the Channel Islands
Mr Smith confirmed on Saturday morning the fire brigade had attended the scene earlier in the evening. He said police would investigate ‘whether or not there was a safety issue’ regarding gas supplies.
Security camera footage showed a fireball engulfing the three-storey building in the Channel island’s port capital St Helier, leaving several people missing.
The blast struck at around 4:00am, hours after reports of a gas leak at the bayside block.
Chief Minister Kristina Moore had confirmed at least three fatalities, and noted that Jersey was already reeling from the sinking of a fishing boat this week in which three men were lost.
Nearby resident Anthony Abbott said his flat’s windows were smashed inward by the blast wave, ‘and there was fire everywhere outside’.
‘It was very, very distressing,’ he told the BBC. ‘I’m a little bit shocked, but we are lucky we’re OK.’
Jersey’s gas supplier, Island Energy, said it was working with the fire service to understand what happened.
The fire was put out but emergency services were conducting ‘significant work’ at the scene, and the rescue operation could take days, police said.
Jersey police chief Robin Smith likened the remains of the apartment building to a ‘pancake’.
‘There is also damage to a nearby building as well, another block of flats that the fire service needs to make safe,’ he said. ‘It is a pretty devastating scene, I regret to say.’
Smith said earlier Saturday that ‘around a dozen’ people were missing, ‘but you will appreciate also that number could fluctuate’.
Two others were taken to hospital but later discharged.
The building went up in flames shortly before 4am yesterday, causing the entire block of flats to crumble
A South West Hazardous Area Response Team was on site joined by an Urban Search and Rescue Team from Hampshire & Isle of Wight Fire & Rescue Service
Jersey Fire & Rescue said ‘pockets of fire’ were still being discovered in the wreckage more than 10 hours after the initial explosion. Two ‘walking wounded’ were rushed to hospital
Jersey Police chief officer Robin Smith described it as a ‘scene of utter devastation’ and said the rescue operation could last for weeks
Specialist equipment was mobilised to find anyone trapped in the rubble, according to the police, helped by an urban search-and-rescue team from southern England.
The chief minister expressed condolences and said residents displaced by the blast were being found somewhere to stay.
‘This is going to take some days and we will keep everyone updated and fully informed, and we will do our very best to ensure everybody is properly looked after,’ Moore said.
The incident caps a tragic week for Jersey, a British Crown dependency not part of the United Kingdom, whose economy relies on banking, tourism and fishing.
The coastguard Friday abandoned a search for three Jersey fishermen missing for nearly 36 hours after their wooden boat hit a cargo ship and sank.
The freighter is owned by Condor Ferries, whose Jersey offices lie near the destroyed apartment block.
‘We must call on the collective strength of the island community,’ Moore said.
The Jersey government tweeted a video of firefighters and specialist rescue teams, including a dog, on the scene in St Helier on Saturday night.
The footage captured some of the devastation and debris behind the cordon – including piles of rubble, crushed cars and a blown out window in the neighbouring building.
The government said: ‘We’re on site coordinating a methodical and meticulous multi-agency search effort.
‘This involves a number of stages, including vacating the site for short periods to allow dogs to enter, and the careful movement of debris.’
It added further updates will be provided on Sunday morning.
Robin Smith (pictured) said that around 12 people were missing, adding: ‘My hope, of course, is that the number is a lot less’
A search and rescue operation was launched in an attempt to find people trapped in the rubble. The scene was said to be ‘very dangerous’ for first responders
The fire has now been extinguished, but emergency services were last night still ‘carrying out significant work’ at the scene, which was cordoned off
The explosion shattered windows in the immediate vicinity of the tragedy
Earlier, Jersey Fire and Rescue Service’s chief fire officer, Paul Brown, told a press conference that specialist rescue teams from areas like the Isle of Wight and Hampshire had been drafted in to help with the response.
He said: ‘The plan is that we will continue searching and we have no other plan at this stage.
‘We are just continuing to search and most of our efforts at the moment are about organisation and logistics of securing the right support at the right time, and making sure that the right equipment arrives in the right sequence.’
‘The area is being lit and teams will be working tonight, all night, and we will not stop for the time being,’ he added.
Mr Brown also spoke about the caution they are taking, saying: ‘The primary challenge is the fact that we have a dangerous structure that has collapsed.’
The blip on the green line at about 4am shows the moment the explosion registered on local earthquake data
‘Anything that we do, or do in the wrong way, may then jeopardise the chance of survival of anyone who might be rescued,’ he added.
Chief Minister Kristina Moore told the press conference that at least three people had died, describing the incident as an ‘unimaginable tragedy’ for the Channel Island.
Meanwhile, States of Jersey Police chief officer Robin Smith said that around 12 people were missing, adding: ‘My hope, of course, is that the number is a lot less.’
The police chief said it was a ‘protracted incident’ that could ‘go on for days, maybe weeks’.
He described said the scene in St Helier as one of ‘tragedy’ and ‘complete devastation’.
Meanwhile, Mr Brown confirmed that firefighters had been called to the building at 8.36pm and had carried out investigations – just hours before the huge blast.
Andium Homes, a state-owned but independent company which rents out thousands of properties on the island, said it is focusing on supporting residents at the estate.
Gas supplier Island Energy said it was working with the fire service to ‘understand exactly what has happened’.
Residents of the flats have been moved to St Helier Town Hall, where they are being supported.
Anthony Abbott, who lives in the Haut du Mont complex, told ITV he and his family felt ‘lucky’ to have survived the explosion.
‘There was debris everywhere. Our windows had all come in. We got a few clothes on, got out of the building, helped people down the stairs and we were all escorted away from the scene.
‘We’re lucky. There may be some people who may not be. There are people that we knew… I haven’t seen them as yet.’
Jersey’s gas supplier, Island Energy, has issued a statement, reading: ‘We are working with @JsyFire to understand exactly what has happened’
Three people have died and up to 12 people are missing after an explosion destroyed several flats in Jersey
Byron Hatton, 50, was at home with his wife at the time of the blast shortly before 4am – and was woken by the loud noise.
He described springing out of bed as the ‘house shook’ and he first wondered if a ‘mini earthquake’ had occurred.
Mr Hatton questioned whether ‘a car had crashed into the house’ at their home just outside Bingham Court, Saint Helier, before seeing plumes of smoke.
The IT manager said: ‘The first bang was absolutely massive, it shook the house. Then there were two smaller explosions.
‘It woke everyone in the area up – I could see all the lights coming on through the windows of people’s homes trying to work out what had happened. All anyone could see from our area was smoke – huge plumes of smoke and ash.’
After checking his family were okay, he donned his coat and went out onto the road to see what had happened before being stopped by a police officer.
He added: ‘We were all out in woolly hats, pyjamas and jackets, maybe 10 or 15 of us. Pier Road was absolute carnage, there was ash and debris everywhere but we couldn’t get any closer.’
‘Being realistic, it would be an absolute miracle if people survived. I feel so sorry for people that may have lost their lives.’
Pictured: Chief of Police Robin Smith and Detective Chief Inspector Craig Jackson attending the search and rescue
The fire has now been extinguished, but emergency services are still ‘carrying out significant work’ at the scene, which is cordoned off
Robin Smith (left), chief officer at States of Jersey Police and Chief minister of Jersey, Kristina Moore (right) held an emergency press conference to discuss the tragedy on Saturday morning
Mr Hatton said he spent around 45 minutes at the top of his road with a police officer, who ‘was pretty shaken up’ as he continued his night shift.
He said: ‘We need to respect our emergency services right now, they must be going through Hell to see the things they are seeing.’
Up to 40 people were moved from surrounding homes and taken to a nearby parish hall before accommodation was found for them.
Jersey’s chief minister Kristina Moore said the area would be under investigation for ‘some days’ as she expressed condolences to families affected.
Speaking alongside Mr Smith at the conference, she said: ‘It’s a huge shock to everyone this morning, but in the first instance our condolences go to the families who are affected and we’re all thinking and praying for those who are worried about their loved ones.
‘We all share in their concern.’ Ms Moore said she would keep islanders updated as investigations continue.
UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab issued a statement to say he is ‘deeply saddened’ by the tragedy.
Jersey Police has set up a support line where concerned residents can request information about family members affected by the major incident. The public are urged to call 0800 735 5566 (Freeline) or 01534 445566, rather than police.
Last night the Parish Church of St Helier held a candle-lit vigil.
The Dean of Jersey, Reverend Mike Keirle, said: ‘Everybody who has been displaced because of the explosion has somewhere to stay this evening. People have been queuing up to help and do all they can to offer food and warmth.
‘There has been a wonderful, caring response from the community.’