Fire raced through a crowded Paris apartment building housing African immigrants early Friday, killing 17 people — 14 of them children, the prosecutor announced.
The fire, which began at midnight and raged for three hours, had started under the ground-floor stairwell, prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said, adding that the cause had not been determined. He said 14 children were among the dead, and 23 people were injured.
Many of the victims were from the west African nation of Mali. Others were from Senegal, Ghana and Tunisia, according to residents.
“There are lots of bodies that are unidentifiable,” said the police official, speaking by telephone on customary condition he not be identified.
“It’s an extremely heavy toll,” said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the scene.
The children had been “asphyxiated,” he said. “It’s an abominable spectacle.”
The minister blamed the high death toll on overcrowded conditions.
Serge Blisko, mayor of the 13th district, said the victims had “visibly, died in their sleep, asphyxiated and not burned.”
People 'jumped out the windows'
One resident described being awakened by cries from children and adults, then rushing to his window on the building’s second floor.
People “jumped out the windows. They didn’t care about dying,” said 71-year-old Oumar Cisse, originally from Mali.
“This dreadful catastrophe plunges all of France into mourning,” said a statement from President Jacques Chirac. He asked that the cause of the blaze be determined as quickly as possible so that “all the consequences can be drawn.”
The fire broke out shortly after midnight in the stairwell of the building, said Capt. Jacques Dauvergne, spokesman for the firefighters. The fire burned through the upper floors for about three hours and it took about 210 firefighters 90 minutes to bring it under control, he said.
Police were investigating the cause.
The state-owned building was run by the humanitarian organization Emmaus and was under the direct care of a linked association France-Euro Habitat, according to local officials and building residents.
Building condition 'totally unfit'
About 100 children and 30 adults lived in the building, according to Cisse, who has lived in the building for 15 years.
He said the building was in a decrepit state, infested with rats and mice. Walls were cracked and lead was in the paint that covered them, he said.
“It was totally unfit,” said Cisse, who acts as a go-between for residents and an association that manages the building.
Blisko said the building was “overcrowded,” particularly with children.
“They talk about three-room apartments with 12 people,” Blisko said in an interview. “When you have this type of fire and people are sleeping, you can be sure the toll will be high.”
Sarkozy said he has asked that all such buildings be inventoried with an eye to closing some.
Sory Cassama, who lived in the building with his wife and 12 children, said he was asleep when a daughter knocked on the door. Their living room had filled with smoke.
“There was so much smoke in the stairwell, but we were still able to get out,” said Cassama, who said his wife was hospitalized from smoke inhalation.
April fire claimed 24 lives
It was the second major Paris fire this year. In April, 24 people were killed in a hotel blaze in the French capital — many of them children. Most were African immigrants and other people without means who were lodged there by authorities.
In that fire, officials said a night watchman’s girlfriend may have accidentally triggered the blaze by placing candles on the floor to set the scene for a romantic tryst but then leaving in a rage because he was drunk.