Gas blast kills 16 girls in dormitory

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A three-story dormitory housing female students collapsed in central Turkey early yesterday morning, killing at least 17 people and injuring 27, authorities said. About half a dozen students were believed to be trapped under the rubble as frantic rescue workers removed debris with shovels, pickaxes and their bare hands.

Mayor Mehmet Demirgul initially told reporters a large gas canister explosion was the likely cause of the collapse of the building in the village of Balcilar. However, the state-run Anatolia news agency and other reports later said the explosion was most likely caused by a leak from a gas installation there.

"We are hearing voices. I believe those inside the rubble will be saved," Demirgul told reporters hours after the collapse. But as more time passed, hopes of finding more survivors began to fade.

Rescue teams pulled out the body of one girl in the afternoon, raising the death toll to 17, Anatolia reported.

At least 27 students were brought out of the debris with injuries, said Hasan Kucukkendirci, who heads the local health authority. Galip Sef, an official with the local emergency services, said three of the students sustained severe burns.

Gov. Osman Aydin said about 40 to 45 girls, were staying at the dormitory. The students, aged eight to 16, were attending Quran courses during the school summer break.

Anatolia news agency quoted one student, Merve Avci, as saying she had got up to wash before pre-dawn prayers when she and some teachers heard a strange sound and went to the kitchen to investigate. There, they saw a loose gas pipe, and she returned to her room after the teachers told her to close the door.

Soon after, Avci told Anatolia, she smelled gas and there was an explosion. Half of the building collapsed, but she was in the section that remained intact. She said flames rose from the basement toward the top of the building.

Television footage showed local residents, some using only their hands, trying to remove the rubble from a flattened, concrete building.

One girl in pajamas could be seen being carried to a hospital. Another could be seen being treated on the back seat of a van, before being moved onto a stretcher and taken away, groaning in pain.

At least four military helicopters ferried special rescue teams to the scene. Rescuers, aided by sniffer dogs, were trying to locate survivors, Kucukkendirci said.