LIEGE, Belgium — Rescue workers recovered seven bodies from the rubble of an apartment building that collapsed Wednesday after an apparent gas explosion, Belgian officials said.
At least 21 people were injured, including two critical in critical condition.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Margaux Donckier announced the new death toll late Wednesday. The building exploded at 2 a.m. and collapsed at dawn.
Donckier said it was unclear if or how many more victims were buried under the twisted metal, wood and bricks from the century-old building.
The blast, which shattered windows up to 100 yards away, surprised the residents in their sleep. Firefighters had still heard survivors in the wreckage when the ornate facade collapsed on the trapped victims in a huge ball of dust hours later at dawn.
"There still could be more people underneath the rubble," said Donckier. The bodies still had to be identified, and details would not be made public until the families have been informed.
Smoke and small fires were making the search difficult throughout the day, especially for the sniffer dogs being used.
Belgian King Albert II visited the site to show his support for the rescue workers and his sympathy for the victims, including an injured teenage girl who was rescued from the wreckage earlier in the day.
"It is likely there was a gas explosion," Liege Mayor Willy Demeyer said, acknowledging there had been a gas alert in the building over the weekend. No leak was discovered at the time, he said.
Only 14 people were officially living in the building close to the Meuse river in eastern Belgium but "we have no idea how many were there at the time of the explosion," Demeyer said. The casualty total indicated at least twice as many people were in the building.
Several houses in the neighborhood have long been suspected of sheltering people illegally.
As rescue workers continued their mission into the night, survivors and families who were still missing a relative received counsel. Some were standing in the street, sobbing as they watched the collapsed building from afar.
Immediately after the blast, a fire raged through the building and thick smoke billowed into the air. The explosion shattered windows in nearby City Hall and spread debris and dust throughout the adjacent streets in downtown Liege.
"It was such a noise that we thought the explosion happened inside City Hall, even though the actual explosion was more than one hundred meters (yards) away, so the whole neighborhood was woken up and devastated," said Demeyer. Most of the historic center of the city was closed off all Wednesday because of the explosion.
Gas supplies were turned off in a wide perimeter, leaving dozens of home without heating in the freezing cold.
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