Fire in Swedish disco kills 60 Arson fear after 60 die in disco fire

Stephen Castle
Saturday 31 October 1998 00:02 GMT

THE WORST fire disaster in Sweden's recent history claimed the lives of 60 teenagers when a blaze ripped through a disco at an immigrant cultural centre in Gothenburg.

After conflicting reports about what caused the fireball which turned the second-floor hall into an inferno, police last night refused to rule out a arson attack.

This has provoked deep anxiety among ethnic minorities in a city appalled by the scale of such an unexpected tragedy.

The fire broke out just before midnight on Thursday as several hundred teenagers, most aged between 13 and 18 and many of Macedonian or Somali origin, celebrated at a Hallowe'en party in the suburban district of Hisingen.

Survivors described scenes of pandemonium as panicking youths broke windows and jumped from the roof when the disco's only exit turned out to be blocked.

Jamal Fawz, 15, who was on the dance floor when the blaze began, said: "It looked like it started in a ceiling and the lamps and loud speakers fell to the floor. It was chaos. Everyone was trying to get out and people trampled on each other on the way to the exit. Others kicked out the windows and then jumped out."

Another survivor, Dlaco Salwati, told Swedish television: "People were screaming: 'our friends are in there!'" He added: "Some tried to go in again after their friends and not all of them made it back."

At daybreak yesterday charred bodies remained inside the burnt-out building. Lennart Olin, who led the rescue attempt, said: "Counting the dead was impossible."

Bo Fors, a fire prevention officer, added: "It was totally burnt out, nothing was left."

Last night, groups of teenagers mingled with reporters outside the Packa Plan mall where the disaster struck.

A tearful group of three girls embraced, overcome by the tragedy, and the air smelled acrid from a row of candles left by grieving friends, relatives and passers-by.

Interspersed with bouquets, the candles burnt on a low wall in front of the television vans which surrounded the blackened shell of the warehouse building.

One theory was that the flames were sparked by an electrical fault in a spotlight, although investigators were suspicious of the speed with which the fire caught hold.

"The fact that it spread so fast indicates that is was not a normal fire," said Mr Olin.

Later, Ake Jacobson, the city's chief fire officer, said: "We really do not want to speculate about the reasons for the fire. The police are investigating and it should take several days to determine the cause."

Swedish law requires buildings with capacity for more than 300 people to undergo regular fire inspections, but the hall had not been visited for 18 months.

That may have been because the building was supposed to hold no more than 150 people. Overcrowding appears to be a key factor in the disaster with at least 300 and perhaps as many as 400 youngsters cramming in to dance.

Many of Gothenburg's ethnic minorities were in a state of shock and alarm. They fear the blaze was a deliberate act of racism.

Most of Sweden's immigrant communities are located in the two biggest cities, Stockholm and Gothenburg.

One Kurdish resident who arrived in the city 12 years ago and who asked not to be named said: "This country is not racist like Germany but when it happens it can be terrible. In small towns they look at you as if they have never seen a foreigner.

"In Gothenburg the racists aren't open. You don't feel scared all the time, but things happen on Friday and Saturday nights, at the weekends when the drinking starts."

Sweden has a record of violent attacks on immigrants despite its reputation as a safe haven for refugees. The number of racist groups has increased as neo-Nazism has become fashionable among certain groups of young people.

Swedish emergency services were overwhelmed by the numbers yesterday as paramedics battled to treat 173 injured people, many of them suffering from severe burns or the effects of smoke.

Casualties were ferried by private cars, taxis and buses to hospitals as the blaze broke out, and yesterday severe cases were being airlifted by helicopter to specialist medical units around Sweden.

Parents rushed around the four hospitals in the city looking for their children.

Anna-Lisa Saar, a social worker at Oestra Hospital, where many of the victims were taken, said identification had been difficult. "They may not have their own identification but have that of a friend who is a year older. Girls don't carry identification on them, but in a bag, and that may not always be lying with the body," she said.

The disaster claimed three times as many victims as the country's previous worst catastrophe in 1978, in the town of Boraas, where 20 people died.

A special memorial service for the victims of the fire was held last night in Gothenburgcathedral.

The Prime Minister, Goran Persson, promised there would be no shortage of money for experts to help the victims. He added: "Our thoughts are with those parents whose children never came home."

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