COLOGNE, Germany - Cologne's six-storey city archive building rumbled and then collapsed into a pile of rubble Tuesday. Many people inside were able to flee to safety, but authorities said they were searching for three people missing from nearby buildings.
The collapse about 2 p.m. also dragged down parts of two neighbouring buildings in the western German city. Officials initially said nine people were feared missing in one of those buildings - which contained apartments and an amusement arcade - but police later said all but three had turned up safe.
''Suddenly there was a rumbling, as if a train were going past,'' witness Alfred Hoovestaedt, who works nearby, told n-tv television. ''Then the noise got louder and louder, and we heard vibration. Then, in seconds, the whole area was covered in a haze.''
Florian Hacke, who lives two buildings away, said he ran out of his house after he heard a creaking noise and cracks opened up in his ceiling.
Alerted by sounds that preceded the collapse, staff and visitors at the Cologne archive were able to get out in time with no injuries, Fire Department director Stephan Neuhoff said.
It was unclear exactly how many people were inside the building at the time. Two construction workers initially reported as missing were among those who escaped.
The modern-style building opened in 1971. A longtime archive employee, Eberhard Illner, told a German radio station that he had noticed cracks in the basement last year.
There was no immediate word on the condition of the archive's contents. Cologne has archive material going back over centuries, manuscripts by Communist pioneers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and documents related to German writer Heinrich Boell.
Rubble from the collapse spilled out up to 70 metres away, police spokesman Wolfgang Baldes said. The roof of a nearby subway construction site also collapsed, but officials said they did not believe anyone was trapped in there.
Work was being done on a new subway line under the street on which the building stood, but the cause of the collapse not yet clear, Fire Department spokesman Daniel Leupold said. About 250 firefighters rushed to the scene.
''I am not aware of any work at the moment that might have caused this,'' said Gudrun Meyer, a spokeswoman for the subway company. Project leader Rolf Papst said there had been no major tunnelling work done in the last 30 days.
In 2004, the tower of a nearby church leaned about one metre to one side, an incident blamed on underground construction work.