Fifteen people are feared to have been killed and a criminal inquiry could be launched after a suspected gas explosion destroyed a block of flats in the centre of Jersey’s capital, St Helier.
Three people have been confirmed dead but a further “dozen” are said to be missing, with the island’s fire chief, Paul Brown, warning he was no longer leading a rescue mission.
Alongside an effort to identify and recover remains, which Brown said could take weeks, an inquiry has begun into the action of the fire service in the hours before the explosion at 4am on Saturday.
Less than eight hours before the three-storey Haut du Mont apartments on Pier Road were enveloped in a fireball, firefighters were called at 8.36pm on Friday to the site after residents reported a suspected gas leak.
Brown said he would be “transparent” about the events leading up to the explosion and that something had gone “horribly wrong” but would not say whether any members of staff had been suspended.
“I wouldn’t provide information about about employment matters on any basis in any scenario,” he said. “That’s not something I would do in an operational context. But my commitment is that our focus now is on the task at hand and the search operation supporting our colleague emergency services and a much wider community. And openness and transparency are absolutely guaranteed.”
When asked whether a criminal inquiry could be launched, Jersey’s chief of police, Robin Smith, responded: “We rule nothing in and we rule nothing out.”
He added: “We have three confirmed fatalities. And I think it is fair to say that we expect to find more. Previously we’ve said probably in the region of a dozen, but you will understand how difficult it is to make that assessment. … That’s a number we hope we don’t get to but that’s the number we’re just sort of working to.”
Smith said all the next of kin had been informed and the initial signs were that the blast was a gas explosion but that this had not been confirmed.
“It looks likely that that is the case,” he said. “But of course, as you often hear the police service say, you know, we keep all our options open. That seems likely, but ‘We do not know’ is a simple answer.”
Two people who were in hospital on Saturday were discharged, with one other person receiving treatment for non-serious injuries.
Specialist teams from other parts of the UK, including the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, have been drafted in to aid the response.
Smith said that the use of sniffer dogs had led them to conclude that there were no further survivors to be found.
He said: “We brought over a number of specialist assets yesterday afternoon, some of which came in Chinooks. Thanks to the support, the military, bringing in not only those specialist assets, but also sniffer dogs, to give us the confidence that we need, that we’ve now moved into the recovery phase. So inevitably, tragically, and sadly, that is the case.”
Jersey’s chief minister, Kristina Moore, told reporters at a press conference on Sunday that the wider community of Jersey has been “immensely shocked and saddened” by the incident and the government had been “overwhelmed” by their “offers of support”.
Earlier, Moore said she had been awoken by the blast. “Across the island you could hear this extraordinary sound,” she said. “It was not quite clear what it was but it certainly woke myself and many people.”