A freak tornado ripped through towns in northern France, killing three people and injuring nine as it gutted houses and hurled cars through the air, officials said on Monday.
A fourth person, a man of 76, committed suicide after his house was demolished by the storm.
Packing violent winds and lashing rain, the tornado carved across a 10km swathe late on Sunday, destroying about 40 homes in the space of minutes in Hautmont, the worst-hit of the four towns on its path.
”There was a deep roaring sound, like a bomb raid,” said local resident Erick Filleur, who was jolted out of his sleep by the storm. ”My wife was watching television. Then suddenly my daughter cried out, my shutters exploded and part of our roof flew off.”
A woman in her 70s was killed in Hautmont when her house caved in, medics said, while rescue workers on Monday pulled the bodies of the deputy mayor and his wife from the rubble of their home.
Local authorities said later that the 76-year-old man, also from Hautmont, shot himself as firefighters continued to search the rubble of the wrecked houses.
Torn metal sheets, ripped electric cabling, roof tiles, gravel and bricks littered the town’s two worst-hit streets on Monday morning, as 200 rescue workers with sniffer dogs combed the debris for possible victims.
President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a message of condolence to the victims’ families, while Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie travelled to Hautmont to announce an emergency aid package of €300 000.
”I have rarely seen anything like this outside of a war zone. This looks like scenes that I saw in south Lebanon. It looks like it has been hit by a bomb,” Alliot-Marie said after overflying the storm path in a helicopter.
Red Cross volunteers on Monday handed out hot drinks and biscuits, blankets and clothes as shocked residents wandered through the streets, snapping pictures of the devastation with their cellphones.
”The windows of my apartment suddenly blew up. I lay down on the ground, I just thought I was going to die,” said Mustapha Rbide, one of the town’s 16 000 residents.
His neighbour Samia Sayah said her baby’s crib was sent flying around the bedroom by the force of the wind, although the seven-month-old infant was unharmed.
Small tornadoes are frequent in France, with about 100 recorded per year mostly from May to September, but a storm of such violence is extremely rare, according to French weather expert Emmanuel Bocrie.
Of the nine injured, the two most seriously hurt were in the nearby town of Boussieres-sur-Sambre, as their house was reduced to rubble.
Four elderly people were also taken to hospital for observation after the storm struck a retirement home in Hautmont. The hospital roof in nearby Maubeuge was also damaged.
Local rail traffic was cut after the storm, which struck at about 9pm GMT on Sunday, brought down local power lines, according to French rail operator SNCF.
Several dozen elderly residents and a few families spent the night huddled in a local cultural centre turned into a makeshift shelter. A handful of distraught residents, shocked and some of them injured, were still sheltering there on Monday.
Andree Fouquet (61), her arm in a sling and both hands in bandages from glass cuts, took refuge there with her 81-year-old mother and 82-year-old aunt, whose house was entirely destroyed. ”You work your whole life, and everything is gone in a few seconds,” she said. — Sapa-AFP