A fireball has destroyed a Russian apartment block, killing at least three and leaving 79 unaccounted for after a gas explosion ripped through the building.
The blast rocked the high-rise building at about 4am as people were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve in Magnitogorsk in the country's Chelyabinsk region - but the death toll is expected to rise.
Officials say dozens are missing after the fireball resulted in seven upper floors of the building giving way.
Several hundred rescuers were scrambling to pull adults and children from the debris after the building collapsed 'like a house of cards'.
Vladimir Putin was woken to be told of the tragedy and ordered his emergencies minister Yevgeny Zinichev to the Urals city.
A total of 48 apartments were damaged where 110 people resided in the 10-storey building.
Ten including one child were rescued from the carnage after the tenth to the third storeys crumbled. A total of 16 were evacuated.
Local media complained that officials were holding back the scale of the New Year's Eve horror.
Law enforcement sources discounted terrorism as a cause and are focusing on a gas leak.
A witness said: 'Looking from the backyard side, the whole of the block collapsed like a house of cards. It is not likely that anybody is alive there.
'People from the next entrance are being evacuated with the help of fire brigade ladders.'
The carnage was at 164 Karl Marx Prospect.
Two Il-76 and Sukhoi Superjet 100 are ready to fly from Moscow pick up the injured, said reports.
The governor of Chelyabinsk region Boris Dubrovsky arrived in Magnitogorsk.
The disaster came as Russians prepared to celebrate New Year - which is like Christmas and Hogmanay rolled into one.
'Vkladimir Putin was immediately informed about the tragedy,' said a Kremlin spokesman.
Putin has ordered Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova to do everything in her powers to assist those injured and bereaved families.
Local man Georgy said: 'I went to work early in the morning and heard a strong crack, and everything shook.
'Let God help keep the victims to as small a number as possible.'
Other local residents confirmed that the explosion was 'very strong'.
The tragedy comes as Russians prepared to celebrate the most important evening off the country's calendar - when by tradition Grandfather Frost, or Santa, visits children.
All those killed were adults, an official said, adding that three injured, including one child, were taken to hospital.
Judging by the destruction, the explosion occurred on the second floor above an arch in the building.
Earlier it had been thought the explosion was higher in the building.
With 79 people reported missing, in a grim message the head doctor of the third city hospital in Magnitogorsk, Mikhail Scherbakov, told reporters: 'The critical time for medical help has ended.
'So we do not think that anyone alive will now be brought to us.'
Ministry of Health official Maria Khvorostova said doctors were treating 12 people injured in the building collapse.
'Four injured were hospitalised, among them one child, born in 2005,' she said.
'The rest did not need the hospitalisation. The condition of all 12 people is assessed as satisfactory.'
Survivor Olesya, whose flat was on the fourth floor, said: 'I woke up from a loud rumble.
'Windows in the whole apartment were smashing. There was a strong smell of burning. I heard neighbours shouting at the entrance.
'I woke my child, and quickly dressed him. We left from the apartment, and instead of the entrance - there was just debris. Men helped us down.
'By this time there were firefighters already in the yard.'
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.