A powerful blast ripped open an office building in the centre of Prague yesterday, injuring at least 35 people and sending shockwaves through the old town tourist district.
The blast, believed to be a gas explosion, shattered windows in a scenic area of charming streets and postcard-pretty buildings, and many people were hurt by flying glass. Authorities closed a wide area around the site and some tourists were stranded on street corners with baggage-loaded trolleys, unable to get into their hotels.
Authorities last night said two or three people were still believed to be missing, but sniffer dogs searching the rubble had not indicated that anyone was buried and the prime minister said it appeared no-one had died.
A cameraman filming at the time of the blast said the impact could be felt on the famed 15th-century Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, which was packed with tourists.
The explosion occurred on Divadelni Street at about 10am, in one of a row of tall, brick buildings dating back about a century. The street was covered with rubble and police evacuated people from nearby buildings.
“There was glass everywhere, and people shouting and crying,” Vaclav Rokyta, a Czech student, said.
Prime minister Petr Necas said after visiting the scene: “It’s really immense and huge, almost like after an air assault or a bomb explosion.
“So, if we really prove what we think right now, which is that nobody died, it was very lucky.”
The Faculty of Social Sciences of Prague’s Charles University and the Film and TV School of the Academy of Sciences of Performing Arts are located next to the damaged building. Students had to be evacuated.
“I was in the bathroom, no windows, the door was closed. Honestly, if I had been in my bed I would have been covered in glass,” said ZB Haislip, a student from Raleigh, North Carolina, who was in a nearby building.
Windows in buildings located hundreds of meters from the blast were shattered, including some in the National Theatre, an ornate, 19th-century structure that is one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic.
Officials had estimated that up to 40 had been injured, but Zdenek Schwarz, head of the rescue service in Prague, later lowered that figure to 35. He told reporters that 30 of the injured had been taken to hospitals for treatment, two of them with serious injuries.
He said five people had been treated at the scene, some bandaged and with faces still bloody.
Among the injured were two Portuguese women, two women from Kazakhstan, a man from Slovakia and a German woman, although none of their injuries was serious, the rescue service said.
Prague mayor Bohuslav Svoboda ruled out a terrorist attack, saying it had been a gas blast.
City hall spokeswoman Tereza Kralova said the cause of the incident would be thoroughly investigated and she added: “We believe it won’t negatively affect tourism.”
Prague is a major tourist capital, visited every year by legions of students, backpackers and others from around the world. In 2012, a total of 5.4 million people visited.