A gas explosion in a Tartu apartment building Thursday afternoon which killed one and injured several more, many of them seriously, may have been caused intentionally. Three of the seriously injured were first responders who had been called to the address, after residents reported a smell of gas. Two of them have suffered severe burns and are in a critical condition at the time of writing. A 46-year-old man, suspected to have been the individual who deliberately caused the explosion and who had a previous record, has subsequently died in hospital.
The gas leak reportedly emanating from an apartment whose occupant was under the influence of alcohol.
Rescuers arrived shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday at the apartment building on Jaama, in the east of Estonia's second city, with the explosion occurring minutes later.
Margo Klaos of the Recue Board's southern district said that the call-out had started off as a seemingly routine one.
Klaos said: "Since it was a gas leak, the door was not broken into, to avoid the risk of sparks."
"The first responders had no information that an individual could behave unpredictably. What was not known about the incident was that if may have been intentionally caused," Klaos went on, adding that the Rescue Board attends around 500 such incidents per year, meaning it was not initially considered out-of-the-ordinary.
Two rescuers had entered the apartment via a window and opened the front door from inside, which was precisely the point in time the explosion took place.
Two Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) officers and an ambulance crew member were in the corridor outside the apartment.
The two PPA officers and one ambulance driver attending the scene were seriously injured and have had to be hospitalized.
A 46-year-old man was taken to hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries.
Two of the first responders, Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) officers aged 23 and 25, are reportedly in critical condition, having suffered serious burns, while two more rescuers were also hospitalized.
Veronika Reinhard, head of Tartu ambulance service, said that: "Five rescue workers were injured in the accident, three of whom were taken to Tallinn Hospital with burns."
An ambulance crew administered first aid to three local residents.
President Kersti Kaljulaid wrote on her social media account Thursday evening that: "Today's gas explosion in Tartu demonstrates how police, rescuers and doctors risk their lives and their health every day."
"I wish the injured police officers, first responders and ambulance workers and all local residents a speedy improvement and recovery," the president went on.
State prosecutor Kairi Kadoja says that the incident is subject to a criminal investigation.
She said that: "Based on the information gathered so far, we have reason to believe that the explosion may have been caused intentionally, and, as a result, we are investigating what happened under the section [of the penal code] under causes of an explosion. Right now the most important thing is that all those injured in the event get better, and I wish them a speedy recovery."
"We are investigating this as an intentional cause of the explosion, not an accident," Kaldoja subsequently said.
"Forensic scientists and experts have been at the scene. The work in ascertaining in which room and in what area the spark which caused the explosion is located is still ongoing," Kaldoja added, confirming that the deceased is a suspect in deliberately having caused the blast.
While the injured PPA officers, who had only recently joined the force, certainly had the necessary skills to deal with the situation, Koppel said, the information received on call-out was not sufficient to have given cause to expect the incident to escalate as it had, PPA southern prefecture chief Vallo Koppel said.
Koppel added that the man who had died had been of interest to the PPA before. This year alone, he had been involved in eight alcohol-related cases, including one for driving while intoxicated.
Windows in neighboring buildings were also blown out in the blast; the ensuing fire was under control by 2.30 p.m. and declared extinguished a little after 90 minutes later.
Rescue Board personnel inspected all buildings affected and no further danger was identified; a 200-meter stretch of road, between the intersections with Pärna and Raatuse streets, is still closed at the time of writing, and traffic subject to diversion.
Sixteen residents who have had to vacate their homes due to the explosion are being rehoused in a local college dorm.
This article was updated to include details on the fatality and the condition of the most seriously injured, and the president's comment on the incident, as well as further details on the PPA officers injured, comment from Vallo Koppel and additional comment from Kairi Kaldoja.
Editor: Andrew Whyte