PARIS (AFP) — An explosion caused by a gas leak rocked the French city of Lyon on Thursday, killing a firefighter and injuring 40 people, one of them seriously, police said.
Some 160 firefighters were dispatched to the scene on the Cours Lafayette shopping street in the heart of Lyon where the blast occurred around midday during maintenance work on an underground gas pipe.
Fire engulfed several buildings in the centre of France's third biggest city and police evacuated close to 1,000 people from the area.
A 35-year-old firefighter and father of two children who was investigating a leak of gas into the basement of a building was killed in the blast, said Lyon Mayor Gerard Colomb.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who travelled immediately to the scene, told reporters that lax security was partly to blame.
She said she was sorry that "all the security procedures were not sufficiently taken into account" and pledged to find ways to boost safeguards for gas maintenance work.
The explosion occurred less than an hour after the gas leak was reported to firefighters, officials said.
An employee of gas utility company GDF is seriously injured after suffering lung damage, medical officials told AFP.
An evening statement from police said a second person considered seriously ill earlier in the day was making a good recovery.
By 1900 GMT, firefighters had brought the separate blazes under control, with almost 200 police having helped with the evacuation of six blocks of offices and residential properties.
Two blocks remained closed-off, with an emergency re-housing operation under way.
One witness, Cali Ozlem, a 25-year-old woman whose parents own a nearby cafe, said they were evacuated at around 1015 GMT.
"We waited, and waited, and one hour later, everything exploded in front of me," she said. "Everything blew up, it was horrible."
Windows were smashed throughout a 100 metre (330 feet) radius, a fire chief told AFP.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, in South Africa, wrote to the family of the dead firefighter to express his condolences, his office said Thursday night.
"I would like to tell you that my heart is with you in these moments of great pain," the letter said, Sarkozy going on to praise the fire service.
The other injured, most of whom suffered minor scrapes, were evacuated to nearby hospitals, according to the local prefecture.
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