Rescuers searching the scene of an explosion in Jersey in which three people have been confirmed dead said they “expect to find more” bodies, with around 12 residents still missing.
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.
The force earlier said the mission is now a “recovery operation” for “around a dozen” missing people and they no longer expect to find anyone alive.
A blast destroyed the three-storey Haut du Mont block in Pier Road in the Channel Island’s capital at about 4am on Saturday.
“We have deployed family liaison officers to the families; it’s utterly important we are sensitive to their emotions as we begin a meticulous and painstaking search of the debris following the explosion.”
He added: “We are not going to be here for days, we are going to be here for weeks, and it’s important I make that clear.
“It is not going to happen quickly, it’s going to happen carefully and sensitively.”
Chief Minister Kristina Moore told reporters 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”.
Jersey chief fire officer Paul Brown acknowledged that something had gone “horribly wrong” and his service will be “co-operating fully” and “transparently” with investigations into what caused the blast.
Mr Brown earlier confirmed that firefighters had been called to the building at 8.36pm on Friday and had carried out investigations after residents reported smelling gas – just hours before the 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 is working with the fire service to “understand exactly what has happened”.
Associate Rector James Porter said the incident had had a “profound” impact on the community, particularly because it came days after three fishermen went missing at sea off the west coast of Jersey.
Speaking at the church, Mr Porter, 48, told the PA news agency: “The church here is right in the heart of the town and just a few hundred metres down from where the tragedy happened.
“This has affected the community in a profound way.
“I think following on from the tragedy with the lost fishermen earlier in the week as well, it’s been hard for people to digest.”
L’Ecume II – an 18-metre wooden fishing vessel – sank five miles west of Jersey after colliding with the freight ship Commodore Goodwill at around 5.30am on Thursday.
Searches for the three men on board, including the captain who has been named in reports as Michael “Mick” Michieli, were called off at sunset on Friday.