Ukraine blast flattens apartment block, kills 19

YEVPATORIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - An explosion ripped through an apartment building in southern Ukraine, killing 19 people, and officials said Thursday they expected the toll to rise.

Twenty-four people were still unaccounted for, Emergencies Ministry spokesman Ihor Krol said, after 21 residents were pulled out alive from the five-storey block in the Black Sea resort of Yevpatoria in the Crimea peninsula.

The blast, probably caused by canisters of oxygen stored in the basement, flattened all five floors, leaving rubble several meters high strewn with wires, smashed furniture, children’s teddy bears and shoes.

“As I was walking by, I heard a bang, and then I saw this building crumble,” one eyewitness said.

Another, who lived opposite the apartment block, said: “We heard a terrible bang. We though our balcony crashed because of the way the windows vibrated. But when I went onto the balcony I saw smoke from the other side.”

Television footage showed rescuers dragging out a man from underneath a heavy slab. Others scrabbled through wires, construction rods and boulders.

From time to time, they paused in silence, and incoming mobile phone calls were heard from under huge piles of debris.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Crimea’s deputy prime minister, Eduard Grivkovsky, said rescuers were working through the rubble of the third floor to get to the first and second floors, “where there are probably more dead,” Interfax Ukraine news agency reported.

President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko set aside their feuding to arrive in town together.

Yushchenko declared Friday a national day of mourning.

Tymoshenko promised families of the dead compensation and said they would be rehoused by the end of the year -- before Orthodox Christmas which Ukrainians celebrate on January 7.

“This is a huge tragedy. The government and local authorities have joined forces to help the suffering families, in order to mitigate this colossal tragedy,” she told a news conference held with Yushchenko.

The two former allies, at loggerheads for months, patched up a governing coalition between their parties in parliament earlier this month.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered his condolences to the relatives of the dead. Russians make up over half the population of Crimea, an autonomous region which used to belong to Russia.

Medvedev said Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol and at the center of a diplomatic spat between Moscow and Kiev during the summer, was ready to assist in the rescue efforts.

Casualties caused by gas blasts in often crumbling apartment buildings are common occurrences in former Soviet republics, particularly in winter when residents use more heating.

Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov, Writing by Sabina Zawadzki and Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Elizabeth Piper