Paris inferno kills 17, all poor, mostly children

26th August 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Aug 26 (AFP) - Seventeen people, including 14 children and a pregnant woman, died and 30 more were injured early Friday when fire ripped through a dilapidated apartment building in Paris occupied by African immigrant families, the fire service said.

PARIS, Aug 26 (AFP) - Seventeen people, including 14 children and a pregnant woman, died and 30 more were injured early Friday when fire ripped through a dilapidated apartment building in Paris occupied by African immigrant families, the fire service said.

The fire service said the blaze -- one of the worst in post-war Paris -- swept up the stairwell of the building in the 13ème arrondissement in the southeast of the French capital.

The cause of the fire was not known, but a criminal investigation was under way.

The alarm was raised at 12:17am after the stairwell caught fire from the third to the sixth storeys, sparking panic among the residents, fire brigade Captain Jacques Dauvergne and witnesses said.

In a provisional toll released at 6:00am, the service said at least 17 died in the inferno. Six of the dead were children, one of them a baby. Of the injured, 23 were hospitalized; two are in serious condition.

About 210 firemen with 50 fire engines were mobilized to fight the inferno, which was extinguished after nearly three hours.

Outside the blackened 105-year-old building, the African women wailed and sobbed in grief while the men stood to one side, trying to show strength after a night of helplessly hearing and watching relatives and neighbours killed by the fire.

"My brother, my brother, why did you die such a cruel death?" cried Aminata, a young woman carrying a baby on her back who is standing with a dozen other Malian mothers.

Awa, a middle-aged woman in the group, beats her chest in despair. "We are poor, we came here to work. Why does God hate us so much?" she asked.

One woman lost four of her six children in the blaze, the French office of the Red Cross told AFP Friday.

French President Jacques Chirac said Friday he expected inquiries to get to the cause of the "ghastly" Paris apartment block fire that killed 14 children and three adults from poor African families so that "necessary conclusions" could be drawn.  

"This ghastly catastrophe has sent all of France into mourning," he said in a statement in which he extended "his profound personal compassion and that of the nation" to the surviving members of the families.

The blaze followed a fire on April 15 in the central Opéra district in which 24 people, also immigrants, perished in a hotel.

Building caretaker Oumar Cisse said there was panic when the blaze broke out and "lots of people wanted to jump out of the windows, children were crying….It was horrible to hear the children's screams."

One of the first firemen on the scene, Corporal Sébastien Figeac, said the flames were lighting up the six-storey building, located on a boulevard usually busy with traffic in the daytime. Residents could be seen at the windows, pleading for help.

"Our first priority was to save a man on a window ledge. One person had already jumped out of a window before we arrived," Figeac, 24, said. "There were flames in the stairwell from the first storey up. My team went up progressively, putting out the fire as they went."

Each apartment told a different story. "In a shower we found a pregnant woman unconscious who had gone there to protect herself," said the Figeac. In another, the men found "a carbonised child." Another contained 10 people still alive.

One officer brought down four children and four adults. "They had the good reflex to keep their apartment door closed and to put themselves at the window," he said.

Mohammed Sisse, who arrived on the scene at 1:30am, said he saw flames sweeping the building between the third and fifth storeys.

"I came to get news of my cousins, a couple and two children who lived on the fourth floor," Sisse told AFP. "We haven't seen them leave, we are very worried."

A resident of the building, Djoure, said the victims were "caught in a trap -- the trap of poverty."

Denouncing a "very dirty" building, building supervisor Cisse said: "There were cracks in the walls, rats and mice. We were very badly housed, we had been waiting for new homes since 1991."

Police said 130 people, including 100 children, from Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gambia were staying in the seven-storey 1920s building on the corner of Boulevard Vincent-Auriol and the rue Edmond-Flamand.

The families had been sent to the building, the top floor of which was bricked up, by charity organizations. It was run by the private group France Europe Habitat, the police said.

Witnesses said the building was in very poor condition.

"There were rats and mice inside," said one resident; a neighbour told AFP that "the wooden staircases of the building shook".

Serge Blisko, deputy mayor of the 13ème arrondissement, denied that the building was dirty. He declared: "It was a building requisitioned by the state and run by (charity group) Emmaüs. It was old but not dirty."

The residents were large families who had been squatters in the 1990s, Blisko said. "It isn't a problem of clandestine immigration, because all the people were in a regular situation."

A fire brigade spokesman told reporters the building had been overcrowded, with residents mostly Malians.

"The stairwell was immediately burnt out, that's why the people took to the windows," the spokesman said. Most of the victims were asphyxiated, he said.

Paris city hall said Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was on his way back from the western town of La Rochelle. He was quoted as saying that he was shocked and expressed his "deep emotion" at the tragedy.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy visited the site and announced that he had ordered Paris police authorities to check all the buildings that could be at risk of fire.

Dozens of African women and children were given blankets and comforted by Red Cross workers in a nearby cafe that was transformed into a refuge.

Delanoë said in a statement that he had given orders for the homeless to be given emergency shelter overnight. The city hall said 12 families including 33 adults and 100 children lived in the building.

They rooted out a precarious existence on the periphery of French society like so many other Africans drawn to the former colonial power. Forced to find accommodation for large families on low wages, often grouping together in communities where the boundaries of kinship and friendship blur.

Many of the survivors were cared for in a nearby restaurant, wrapped in survival blankets. Two little girls aged five and six were seen hugging a teddy bear already sodden by their tears.

Outside there were several chairs and a baby carriage, all charred.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, fire, inferno, African immigrants, Emmaüs, Sarkozy, Delanoë

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