Worst Paris fire in 14 years is suspected arson attack

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(Paris Fire Dept. via AP)
Firemen climb ladders to the top floors of an apartment building on fire, Tuesday, Feb. 5, in Paris, France. (Paris Fire Dept. via AP)

Paris’ deadliest fire in over a decade claimed at least 10 lives Tuesday, sending fleeing residents to the roof and clambering across balconies as flames rapidly engulfed their nine-story apartment building.

A 40-year-old female resident of the building, said to have a history of psychiatric problems, was arrested on the street in the hours after the 1 a.m. blaze, as French police opened a criminal investigation into voluntary arson resulting in death.

Officials said the unnamed woman, who is in police custody, was drunk.

Multiple neighbors said they heard the suspect and her neighbor, an off-duty firefighter, arguing over the woman’s music before the fire broke out, then heard the woman cry out: “So you’re a firefighter? Here’s a fire.”

Police responding to the dispute between the neighbors, who both live on the third floor, had stopped by the woman’s apartment earlier in the night. The firefighter and his girlfriend told officers they were leaving to go sleep elsewhere in peace and warned them that the neighbor had lost her mind and one day there would be an accident because of her, according to a police report seen by the Associated Press.

The blaze originated on the floor that the suspect and firefighter shared. Survivors described a chaos of smoke and flames. One neighbor recalled clambering out of her eighth-floor apartment over balconies.

“I climbed across several balconies, with nothing beneath, and then was backed into a corner. There were people using only the strength of their arms to get to where I was and escape the flames,” said a resident identified only as Claire, her eyes wide with shock soon after her rescue.

Another, an off-duty police officer on the third floor, threw on clothes and rang doorbell after doorbell, trying desperately to save his neighbors.

“I couldn’t save everyone. I can’t forgive myself,” the man identified as Fabrice told France Info radio, adding he could go no higher than the fourth floor because of the smoke and flames.

Street resident Jacqueline Ravier described seeing a young man blackened by smoke and a woman motionless on the ground.

For hours, she said, flames shot out from the top of the building as smoke-covered victims fled. Shaken residents were brought to her building and the one next door.

It is the deadliest fire in Paris since the April 2005 hotel fire near the capital’s famed Opera that killed 24 people.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner spoke to reporters at the scene Tuesday morning, as plumes of smoke speckled the sky.

“I want to salute the huge mobilization of the Paris firefighters,” he said. “More than 250 people arrived immediately and, throughout the night, saved over 50 people in truly exceptional conditions.”

Over 30 people were being treated for “relatively” light injuries, he said. Among the injured were at least eight firefighters.

Castaner told reporters at the scene that authorities suspect the blaze was criminal in nature and officials said the detained female resident had “a history of psychiatric problems.”

A judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation was ongoing, told AP that the suspect was drunk at the moment of her pre-dawn arrest.

City fire service spokesman Clement Cognon told The Associated Press that firefighters had been going door-to-door to ensure there are no more victims, and to prevent residual fires.

“The situation was already dramatic when the firefighters arrived,” Cognon said.

Firefighters rescued some people from the roof as well as others who had clambered out of windows to escape the flames.

Emergency workers also sought to shore up the building that was badly damaged after flames shot out of windows stretching across the upper floors, in images of the operation released by the fire service.

The building is on rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement, one of the calmest and priciest districts of Paris. It is close to the popular Bois de Boulogne park and about a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Roland Garros stadium that hosts the French Open tennis tournament and near the Parc des Princes stadium that’s home to Paris Saint-Germain, the country’s top soccer team.

Paris police said the street was blocked off and neighboring buildings were also evacuated as the firefighters worked to put out the blaze. It was extinguished by mid-morning.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter: “France wakes up with emotion after the fire in rue Erlanger in Paris last night.”

The fire comes a month after a deadly explosion and blaze linked to a gas leak in a Paris bakery.

In September 2015, there was a fire in a northern Parisian neighborhood that left eight dead.

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