Twenty die in blaze at Paris hotel used to house homeless migrants

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The Independent Online

Twenty people, 10 of them children, have been killed in a fire at a hotel in central Paris used to house homeless immigrants. It was the most deadly fire in the French capital for two decades and it provoked a furious row about the provision of suitable accommodation for immigrants.

Twenty people, 10 of them children, have been killed in a fire at a hotel in central Paris used to house homeless immigrants. It was the most deadly fire in the French capital for two decades and it provoked a furious row about the provision of suitable accommodation for immigrants.

Terrified guests jumped from the upper storeys of the six-floor hotel after the blaze broke out in the early hours of yesterday. Some of those who died were killed by the fall, others were overcome by fumes as they slept.

All the victims were believed to be from African families housed by the state or the city in the downmarket Paris-Opéra hotel for ¤20 (£14) a night. More than 50 other guests, including American and Canadian tourists, were treated at a first-aid post established in the Galeries Lafayette department store across the street.

The Paris fire service said the hotel, which had 76 guests, had only one exit and no fire escape but had recently passed a safety inspection. The Paris public prosecutor opened a criminal investigation for manslaughter but police said the fire appeared to have started accidentally in a first-floor breakfast room.

Up to 5,000 illegal immigrants or asylum-seekers are housed at any one time by the French government, local social services or charities in small hotels in Paris and surrounding suburbs.

The housing pressure group Droit au Logement, equivalent to Shelter in the UK, said the 20 deaths were a predictable result of the failure of the French state to cope with a large influx of illegal migrants and asylum-seekers. "We must learn the lessons of this tragedy and cease housing families in tourist hotels, which is not only an expensive stop-gap but destabilising and dangerous for the families," the group said.

There are only 2,000 hostel places for homeless migrants in the Paris area. Of the 76 people staying in the Paris-Opéra hotel, there were 50 immigrants from 15 families. One of the first people on the scene was Alfred Millot, the fire service officer of Galeries Lafayette. "There were already bodies on the ground," he said. "There were dozens of people, including children, screaming for help at the windows, thick, black smoke everywhere. In a situation like that there, you can't make people calm down. They jump. People were throwing their children from the windows."

Another witness, a prostitute from a nearby hotel who would not give her name, told the French news agency AFP that she had seen a small child jump from a window then lie still on the pavement.

Chakib San, a neighbour, said he saw three people jump from upper floors, including a woman and a child. "They were on the ground," he said. "They weren't moving."

The Hotel Paris-Opéra is in the Rue de Provence, a narrow street situated behind the Printemps and Galeries Lafayette stores in the ninth arrondissement. Although close to the centre of tourist Paris, the street is a shabby mixture of poor Chinese and Lebanese residents, discount clothes stores and small hotels.

Yesterday, water was still dripping from the roof but there was little visible damage. Charred stains rose from the windows, particularly on the second and top floors. A spokesman for the fire department said the high death toll was partly the result of panic. If people had stayed in their rooms, they could have been rescued, he said.

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