Fire rips through Paris apartment block leaving 17 immigrants dead

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The fire in a rundown Paris apartment block which killed 17 African immigrants, including up to 14 children, was a "ghastly catastrophe", President Jacques Chirac said.

The blaze began close to midnight on Thursday, trapping many of the residents in the six-storey building in the city's south-east 13th district as they were asleep. Many were injured jumping from windows in panic.

The death toll made it one of the worst Paris fires in postwar history. The worst on record was in April, when 24 immigrants were killed in a downmarket hotel in the north of the capital.

Firefighters said the rooms in the building, which lies on a busy boulevard, were crammed with children belonging to 12 poor African families, most of them from Mali and Senegal. Officials said 100 children and 30 adults lived at the address.

"It was horrible to hear the children's screams," said Oumar Cisse, a 71-year-old Malian who was the building's supervisor. "Some children were yelling for their mothers and fathers."

More than 200 firefighters took three hours to put out the fire. They managed to save most of the people inside, but several had to be counselled after seeing the bodies of victims.

The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited the scene and said: "It's an abominable spectacle." He ordered authorities to identify other residential buildings in the city that were potential fire hazards. Most victims died of smoke inhalation, but police said that at least seven of the bodies were so badly charred that determining their age, let alone identifying them, was proving difficult. At least 30 people were injured, including one fireman.

"This ghastly catastrophe has sent all of France into mourning," M. Chirac said in a statement. "I expect that the inquiries under way will quickly shed light on the exact circumstances of this tragedy and allow us to draw all the necessary conclusions."

Investigators have not ruled out arson. They said the fire had started on the ground floor of the building, which was nearly a century old, and quickly burnt out the central wooden staircase, fanned by an open skylight. Panicked residents rushed to their windows, the only exits left, to cry for help. A few jumped before firemen managed to get ladders up to them.

Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris, met some of the survivors as they shook and sobbed in a nearby café under survival blankets. Near tears, he called the fire a "horrible tragedy" that should serve as a wake-up call to municipal and national authorities responsible for allocating accommodation to the needy in France. He vowed to find lodgings for the families.

Residents and relatives said the gutted building had been kept in an unfit state, overrun by rats, with cracked walls and no fire extinguishers available. The size of the African families, some with 10 children, meant many of the three-room apartments were overcrowded.

Friday's blaze, coming so soon after the one in April, triggered a wider debate on living standards for immigrants to France, many of them from poor African countries that had been under colonial rule.

The opposition Socialist Party called on the government to recognise that the "indecent housing facilities" proved France was facing a housing crisis. In Paris, more than 100,000 families from modest or poor backgrounds competed last year for just 12,000 subsidised lodgings.

The Federation of African Workers in France said the building had been in pitiful condition and demanded the survivors be found decent lodgings.