August 26, 2005

Paris fire kills 17, including children

By Kerstin Gehmlich

PARIS (Reuters) - Fire tore through a crowded Paris
apartment block housing African immigrants on Friday, killing
17 people, at least six of them children, officials said.

They said the blaze broke out in the stairwell of the
rundown building just after midnight when most residents would
have been sleeping. It was brought under control two hours
later but the cause was not immediately known.

"I heard children cry, families scream. Some children were
yelling for their mothers and fathers," Oumar Cisse told
reporters after he was evacuated from the building.

More than 20 people were injured in the blaze in southern
Paris, a spokeswoman for Paris hospitals said.

A little boy in pajamas clutched a toy animal as he was led
away from the six-storey building by emergency officials.

Several men and women, some carrying children in their
arms, were also evacuated.

Paris Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said 14 children had
been killed but the hospitals spokeswoman said only six were
among the dead. A police source said the number would rise but
difficulties in identifying badly burned bodies made it hard to
establish the exact number of dead infants.

"The number of dead children will certainly be more than
six but we cannot say any more for now," the source said.

The fire will fuel a debate on the living conditions of
immigrants in France. In April, a blaze at a Paris hotel used
by immigrants killed 24 people, half of them children.

Smoke could still be seen billowing out of windows of the
apartment block on the Vincent Auriol boulevard hours after
Friday's blaze was brought under control.

"This building was run down. I knew something was going to
happen. It was dangerous," said Benita, who lives in a
neighboring apartment building.

Police said some 30 adults and 100 children had lived in
the building, many of them from African countries such as Mali,
Senegal or Ivory Coast. Most of the casualties were immigrants.


Police cordoned off the area, near the river Seine and the
Jardin des Plantes botanical garden. More than 200 firefighters
and dozens of ambulance workers and police were at the scene.

"This dreadful disaster plunges all of France into
mourning," President Jacques Chirac said in a statement.

Martin Hirsch from Emmaus, a group which helps the poor
including people with housing difficulties, said large families
with many children had used the building as temporary

Opposition politicians said the fire highlighted a severe
housing problem in Paris. The hotel blaze in April was one of
the deadliest fires in the French capital for years.

Some people tried to save themselves by jumping from
windows and others tried to save their children by throwing
them from upper floors when the April fire broke out in the
middle of the night. Police said later they had detained a
young woman and that she had admitted accidentally causing the

Thousands of immigrants and families from poor backgrounds
live in run-down hotels or shabby buildings in Paris because of
pressure on housing.

According to city authorities, more than 100,000 families
from modest or poor backgrounds were looking for social housing
in the capital last year, up from some 85,000 10 years ago, but
only around 12,000 homes were allocated in 2004.