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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coverage of Blast Betrays Latent Fears

While law enforcement officials and scientists reiterated Thursday that a gas leak was the most likely cause behind this week's deadly apartment house blast, press coverage of the tragedy betrayed public jitters.

News reports and witness accounts reflected residual fear from the terror attacks of 1999, distrust for official pronouncements and widespread suspicion toward outsiders, especially dark-skinned migrants from the southern Caucasus region.

"Moscow Winced Again," proclaimed a front-page headline in the popular Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "People have grown so accustomed to terrorist acts that they refuse to believe in everyday accidents."

"Our leaders don't want noise about terrorism," Valentin Petrov, whose in-laws lived in the destroyed part of the brick walk-up, told The New York Times. "People have lost their homes, but it makes no difference to them. They need stability before the next elections."

Within hours of the explosion that killed eight people at 32 Ulitsa Akademika Korolyova late Tuesday, emergency and police officials pointed to a gas leak. But the nature of the damage -- a gaping hole the width of an entire podyezd -- stirred frightening memories of the apartment blasts that killed nearly 300 people in 1999. One of the first explanations for those blasts, although it was quickly discounted, was also a gas leak.

Prosecutors are still working on a chemical analysis of the debris, but a police spokesman said there was "nothing criminal" about the blast, just "an everyday accident." Preliminary analyses found no trace of explosives.

Yury Voroshilin, a deputy prosecutor for Moscow's northeast district whose office is leading the probe, confirmed that investigators still believe the epicenter of the blast was in a second-floor apartment. Investigators have established the identities of the apartment's owners and tenants and would have no problem locating them if necessary, he said.

But press reports homed in on the ethnic background of the residents, alluding to allegations, still unproven, that the 1999 blasts had been carried out by Chechen terrorists.

Kommersant cited unnamed neighbors as saying that a family of 12 from the Caucasus had moved into the apartment about six months ago. The newspaper said the new tenants seemed "suspicious." Moreover, the family reportedly moved out days before Tuesday's blast, ominously warning their neighbors that "you'll remember us yet."

Similar snippets of information had appeared in broadcast news reports hours after the explosion when local residents were cited as saying that some rowdy neighbors from the Caucasus had left in a huff recently, threatening to send them "flying into the sky."

Prosecutors said Wednesday that the apartment was owned by an Armenian family and occupied by their friends or relatives, also Armenian.

Several publications interviewed a woman believed to be the owner of the apartment. Izvestia quoted a woman identified as Yana Selikova as saying she had lived in the apartment for 16 years but had moved out several years ago. Afterward, she said, the apartment had been occupied by her relatives, who had recently left Moscow. Selikova said she had visited the apartment around 4 p.m. Tuesday. "I specifically checked everything. If the gas had been going, I would have sensed it," she said.

Many other neighbors said they had not smelled gas. But specialists asserted that the smell would not have penetrated a tightly shut apartment door and that a gas leak indeed could have led to such grave damage.

Alexander Komarov, an expert on explosions and combustibility at the Moscow State Construction University, said that within two hours, one working burner on a gas stove can fill a standard two-room apartment with about 200 liters of methane. An explosion under such conditions would increase pressure inside the apartment to about one metric ton per square meter.

"No concrete wall would withstand such pressure and a brick wall would be destroyed immediately," Komarov said.

Natural gas explosions caused by leaks from aging pipes and stoves are common. On Thursday, an explosion tore through a two-story dormitory in the Siberian town of Kogalym, killing five children and three adults, news agencies reported. The blast, which caused the building to collapse, was blamed on a natural gas leak.

Staff Writers Nabi Abdullaev and Valeria Korchagina contributed to this report.