Fire kills six as French retiree 'opens sweets with lighter'

14th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

A fire in a French retirement home killed six women Wednesday, after a 75-year-old man tried to open a packet of sweets with his cigarette lighter, officials said.

An investigation has been launched into the blaze, which broke out at around 2:20 am in "Les Anemones", a retirement home for 180 people in the southern port city of Marseille, state prosecutor Christophe Barret told reporters.

Barret said the fire was "extremely intense" and had quickly spread from the man's room to the corridor outside, sending choking smoke pouring through the four-storey building, suffocating six of his neighbours and injuring 13 more.

"The inhabitant of the room in which the fire broke out says that he tried to open a bag of sweets, which was sealed by a ribbon, with his lighter. The packet and his bed caught fire," Barret told reporters.

The dead were six women aged between 51 and 93 and of those hurt by smoke inhalation, three -- a 91-year-old woman and two men aged 77 and 85 -- are in a serious condition in local hospitals, the prosecutor said.

The deceased were all women who had disabilities that reduced their mobility, but firefighters were on the scene within eight minutes and the rest of the residents were successfully evacuated.

"The toll could have been much greater," Barret said, paying tribute to the 80 firefighters in 28 engines for their quick response.

He said safety at the home would be examined but that initial reports were that enough staff -- four people -- were on duty for a night shift, while the fire alarm had been inspected earlier in the year and was in working order.

"The alarm and safety systems seem to have worked well," Barret said. "The bedroom doors played their role as fire breaks."

While many of the residents were "deeply disturbed" by the tragedy, there seemed not to have been any panic while the building was evacuated, he said.

"The staff are in shock," said Marseille's assistant mayor in charge of public safety Caroline Pozmentier, who rushed to the scene along with the relatives of several residents alerted by radio reports.

Les Anemones is a privately-run home with a state licence and many of its residents' fees are covered by social security. It was built in the 1980s in a quiet wooded garden, and houses both the able-bodied and partially disabled.

The prosecutor said the blaze appeared to have been an accident. The 75-year-old is being questioned but he is confused and not thought to be in full possession of his mental faculties, Barret said.

Local district mayor Robert Assante told reporters that questions may still have to be asked about the design of the building.

"The question I ask myself is how the toxic gases were able to build up so quickly," he said. "In the end we may need to update regulations."

This was the second fatal retirement home blaze in France in the past month, after a November fire started by a cigarette butt in a residence in the western town of La Rochefoucauld left three dead and 11 injured.

© 2011 AFP

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