Seventeen die in Paris inferno

Seventeen people including many children died and about 30 were injured early on Friday when a blaze ripped through a dilapidated apartment building in Paris occupied by African families, the fire service said.

In a provisional toll released at 5am (3am GMT), it said at least 17 died in the inferno which swept up the stairwell of the building in the 13th district of the French capital.

The origin of one of the worst blazes in post-war Paris was not known, but a criminal investigation is under way.

The fire was a reminder of a blaze on April 15 this year in the central Opera district in which 24 people, also immigrants, perished in a hotel.

Police said 130 people, including 100 children, from Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire 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 organisations. 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, while a neighbour said that “the wooden staircases of the building shook”.

The alarm was raised at 12.17am (10.17pm GMT on Thursday) 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.

Mohammed Sisse, who arrived on the scene at 1.30 am, 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,” he said. “We haven’t seen them leave, we are very worried.”

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”.

“My door was totally burnt, my son threw water then we were saved by the firemen.
Neighbours lost children,” he said, apparently in shock.

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

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy went to the scene and Paris Town Hall said Mayor Bertrand Delanoe was on his way back from the southwestern town of La Rochelle.

Delanoe was quoted as saying he was shocked and expressed his “deep emotion” at the tragedy.

A fire brigade spokesperson 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,” he said. Most of the victims were asphyxiated, he said.

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.

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

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