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Factory owner arrested after fire kills 55

Image: Victims' relatives cry on the site of a fire that broke out in a mattress factory in Casablanca, Morocco
Victims' relatives cry on the site of a fire that broke out in a mattress factory on Saturday in Casablanca, Morocco. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police detained the owner and manager of a Casablanca mattress factory that went up in flames, killing at least 55 people, a police official said Sunday amid accusations of poor safety standards and locked doors that trapped workers.

Rescue workers found one more body Sunday and a sniffer dog was seen uncovering body parts a day after the blaze at the factory, located in a poor industrial neighborhood on the rim of Morocco’s sprawling economic capital.

The latest official death toll was 55, including the most recently discovered body, and six people remained hospitalized, Morocco’s official news agency said, quoting the wilaya, or local government. The death toll had initially been reported at 55, then was lowered only to climb again.

Factory owner Adil Moufareh and his son Abdelali, the plant manager, were detained for questioning, a police official for the factory district of Hay Hassani told The Associated Press by telephone. Radio Medi-1 and some other local media also reported the arrests. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the fire and asked not to be identified by name.

Authorities differed over the reasons for the high death toll, with Casablanca’s governor, Mohamed Kabbaj, attributing it to the large number of people working at the time — 100 — as well as the presence of flammable products.

Reports of locked doors
However, the head of Casablanca’s civil protection unit, Mustapha Taouil, said that, in addition, doors were reportedly locked.

“We have information that the factory was closed, locking in the employees, which turned some of them into victims,” Taouil told AP Television News. His report echoed accusations by some factory workers who said the owners had locked the doors, apparently to prevent the fire from spreading and save their merchandise.

Large piles of mattresses could be seen across the street from the plant on Saturday, and workers alleged this was because the owners had focused on evacuating belongings rather than their staff.

A senior police official on the scene said the owner had denied the allegations but that the accusations would be investigated. He, too, asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The head of the Red Crescent rescue operation, Jawad el-Mejdoubi, also said an emergency exit had been blocked in the four-story building, where windows were covered with iron bars.

More victims possible
An AP photographer saw rescue dogs uncovering several other body parts Sunday, an indication that more victims could still be trapped under the rubble.

The fire on the edge of Casablanca, Morocco’s chief port, appeared to be the North African kingdom’s worst since a blaze killed 50 prisoners in a jail in 2002.

Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said an investigation into the cause of the blaze would also examine security measures and work conditions at the factory, the news agency MAP reported.

The minister said chemicals in the building sent the blaze out of control and delayed the rescue effort by hours.

Firefighters said many victims were trapped in the spiral stairwell of the building.