Fire in Casablanca kills up to 55

A fire roared through a mattress factory in a poor section of Casablanca, killing up to 55 workers and injuring at least 12 others. A rescue chief said firefighters arrived hours late and that the emergency exit of the building was blocked.

The fire broke out midmorning Saturday in an industrial neighborhood outside of sprawling Casablanca, the economic centre of this North African country.

Firefighters said that 54 people were killed and up to 24 injured.
The state news agency put the deaths at 55.

The head of the Red Crescent rescue operation, Jawad el-Mejdoubi, said firefighters arrived some two hours after the blaze began, and other rescuers showing up four hours after it started. He said they found the factory’s emergency exit blocked.

He said it took more than eight hours to fully extinguish the blaze.

“I don’t think we realised how big the fire was,” said el-Mejdoubi.

“Twisted bodies, faces disfigured by fire ... It’s the worst fire in a very long time,” he said, speaking in the emergency ward of Ibn Rochd Hospital.

Police dogs and seismic equipment were brought in to locate victims in the partially collapsed four-storey building. However, heat and thick smoke impeded the rescue operation.

Many victims were trapped in the spiral stairwell of the building, according to firefighters.

Local authorities blamed chemicals in the building for adding fury to the flames which quickly spread from the ground floor to the upper stories, the MAP news agency said. It cited the Wilaya of Greater Casablanca, the city government.

However, families of victims and one person who escaped said the doors had been shut, preventing any chance of escaping.

A judicial investigation was opened to determine the exact cause of the blaze, in Casablanca’s Lissasfa neighborhood. A ministerial commission is also to carry out an investigation, Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said on Saturday night.

“They’re accusing the owner of having closed the doors, but this is far from certain,” said a senior police officer coordinating rescue efforts. He was not authorised to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

The city statement said 55 were killed and a dozen injured.

However, a fire official helping with the rescue said that 54 people had been killed—21 women, 28 men and five others whose bodies were too charred to identify their sex.

Some 80 rescuers joined an estimated 200 firefighters battling the blaze which rekindled hours after it had been tamped out. More than eight hours later, thick plumes of smoke billowed from the bowels of the building and firemen, using a crane, were still hosing down the rubble.

Several thousand anxious people gathered around the building while the rescue effort was in progress. Some merchandise from the factory—wood, tissue and filling—was piled in a nearby clearing, untouched by flames.

“There was so much yelling, so many cries of the families of victims,” said el-Mejdoubi, the Red Crescent chief, describing the frantic scene.

About 100 people were in the factory when the fire broke out, according to MAP.

However, many deaths occurred on the third floor, where women sew, said a 29-year-old worker who managed to escape.

The woman, Rachida Darif, said she saved herself by crawling through a space to the roof, then jumping down from a neighbouring building that was under construction. She used a construction cord to lower herself part way, she said.

“We ran to the door, it was blocked. To the elevator, it was blocked. Then, oops, the lights went out,” Darif told the Associated Press.

King Mohammed VI ordered that no effort be spared to bring aid to victims and console their families, the news agency reported, citing a royal statement. Hospitals with burn units, including the military hospital in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, were ordered to mobilise their resources for the injured.

The bustling coastal city of Casablanca is Morocco’s leading port and the economic capital. It reflects the contrasts of Morocco, the world’s westernmost Muslim country, with its rich modernity and poor, crowded neighborhoods with soaring unemployment.

The fire was the worst reported in Morocco in recent years. A 2002 fire at the overcrowded Sidi Moussa prison, in the Atlantic coastal town of El Jadida, killed 50 people. That fire was caused by a short circuit but made more deadly by fumes from burning mattresses. - Sapa-AP

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