A fatal leap for many fleeing Paris hotel fire
African immigrants, including children, among 20 killed
PARIS -- Searing flames and thick smoke sent people jumping from windows of an overcrowded budget hotel before dawn yesterday in one of the worst fires in recent memory in the French capital. At least 20 people were killed.
At least half of those killed were children, and many were African immigrants being temporarily housed at the Paris-Opera Hotel. The blaze injured 59 others, 11 of them critically, according to police and fire officials.
Fire officials said the blaze appeared most likely to be accidental, but the French prosecutor's office launched an investigation into possible criminal charges.
The hotel, which has 32 rooms and a single exit, was packed when the fire broke out at 2:20 a.m. The only way out was a stairwell filled with thick smoke and flames, fire investigators said.
The building is in the Opera district of Paris, near the Galeries Lafayette department store. The store, popular with French shoppers and foreign tourists, was turned into a makeshift hospital for the injured.
Many victims died when they tried to escape the flames by jumping from the higher floors onto the concrete sidewalk below, according to witnesses. Some parents were seen dropping their small children and babies from windows.
Police did not release the identities or nationalities of the dead. The injured came from France, Senegal, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Algeria, police said.
Three Americans also were staying at the hotel, but they were not listed among the dead or injured, according to police. A police spokesman later said the three females -- ages 16, 17 and 18 -- were treated for smoke inhalation and released.
President Jacques Chirac of France, who visited the scene early yesterday, called the fire ''one of the most distressing disasters to have struck Paris."
Alfred Millot, who is in charge of Galeries Lafayette's security, said he reached the scene within five minutes after receiving a call from a security guard.
''When I got there, I saw people jumping out of windows," he said. ''It was a very violent fire and seemed like war. The stairs were on fire, the windows were on fire, everything. They always tell you to stay put and put a wet towel under your door, but I guess these people couldn't because the fire was too strong."
''We were woken up by people screaming 'Fire!' and I opened my window and saw flames and about 20 people jumping out of their window," said Isabelle Arago, 43, a resident in a building next door. ''I smelled smoke when the fire started, and it filled the air, and you could feel the heat. But it was raining, which was a blessing.
''The most shocking thing was to see children being thrown by their parents out windows and there was no one there to catch them," Arago said. ''They just fell to the ground. It's something horrible and something I've never seen in the 23 years I've lived in Paris."
The fire apparently started in a first-floor breakfast room, fire officials said, and it caused part of the hotel's single stairwell to collapse.
Approximately 90 people were in the hotel, which was built to hold 60, fire officials said. Most were sleeping when the fire broke out.
One witness, who lives nearby, was quoted on the French all-news television station LCI saying he heard the shouting, and ''I thought it was soccer fans or students" before he looked out the window to see a woman falling to her death.
The fire was brought under control after an hour. About 260 firefighters were involved in battling the blaze.
''We don't often see such fires in Paris," said Laurent Vibert, a fire brigade captain. French television reported that the building was only recently inspected and met all requirements, with working fire alarms, but it was unclear whether the alarms worked during the fire.
A fire station is located only a block from the hotel, and firefighters were on the scene within a few minutes. But when they arrived, the fire was already so intense that they could not enter the building, officials said.
A statement from City Hall said 65 people had been placed in the hotel by state services, while 14 others -- eight of them children -- were assigned by city officials. French social services often place people in hotels while seeking longer-term housing solutions.
''The situation since 2000 has been that, when there are no places left in permanent structures, the people are placed in hotels that don't necessarily conform to hygienic and safety standards, or indeed to standards of human dignity," said Pierre Henri, director of the nonprofit organization Terre d'Asile, which helps asylum seekers.
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