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Tryst gone awry cited in Paris blaze

Candles seen key to fatal fire, prosecutors say

PARIS -- A night watchman's girlfriend who placed candles on the floor to set the scene for a romantic tryst but then left in a rage over his drunken state may have accidentally caused last week's hotel fire that killed 24 people, prosecutors said yesterday.

The woman, who was detained Monday, told police she placed a dozen burning candles on the floor of the breakfast room of the Paris Opera hotel, then threw piles of clothes on the floor and left after she became angry that her boyfriend was drunk.

The prosecutors' office announced it was opening an investigation for ''fire caused involuntarily, manslaughter, and involuntary injuries."

The woman, identified only as 31-year-old Fatima, was placed under investigation, a step short of being charged, and taken into custody yesterday.

The night watchman, whose name was not released, was in a coma, judicial officials said. France-3 television said the man was ''between life and death" after having jumped from an upper floor window during the fire. The report could not be confirmed.

Several guests trapped by the blaze died by jumping from windows of the overcrowded, six-story hotel during the fire, which was Paris' worst in recent memory. A 1973 blaze in an eastern Paris school killed 20 people, 16 of them students.

Officials raised the death toll Tuesday to 24, including 11 children. Twenty-seven people remained hospitalized, 14 in serious condition, officials said.

The nationalities of the dead have not been released, but the budget hotel housed many African immigrants and other people without means who were placed there by social services.

The suspect told police that she put a dozen lighted candles on the floor of the breakfast room, a statement from the prosecutor's office said. She left with the candles still burning, it said.

The 32-room hotel is in the 9th Arrondissement, near a fashionable shopping area.

It was meant to accommodate 61 people, but at least 90 people were known to be living there, authorities said.

The hotel had only a single exit, and heavy fire and smoke forced the occupants to the windows.

Police originally suspected an accidental fire caused by a technical problem.

The hotel's fire prevention system had been checked March 24, and four recommendations to improve safety were issued, but the problems were insufficient to close down the hotel, police said.

Still, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Sunday he plans to work quickly toward new measures to reinforce fire regulations, suggesting they could be ready within several weeks.

The fire has drawn protests from groups that defend immigrants' rights. Bouquets of flowers stood propped up around the scorched hotel after a demonstration Monday.

Social services officials have relocated the survivors to another hotel in a Paris suburb, while families continued their search for loved ones.

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