- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

PARIS — Searing flames and thick smoke sent people jumping from the windows of an overcrowded budget hotel before dawn yesterday in one of the worst fires in recent memory in the French capital. At least 20 persons were killed — half of them children and many African immigrants and other people without means lodged there by authorities.

The six-story Paris Opera hotel, with 32 rooms and a single exit, was packed when the fire broke out at 2:20 a.m. The only way out was a stairwell choked with thick black smoke and flames.

Alfred Millot, who heads the fire prevention team at a chic department store across the street, Galeries Lafayette, was among the first on the scene. The department store was temporarily used to store victims’ bodies.

?There were about 10 people that I saw dangling from different windows,? Mr. Millot said. ?It was a very dramatic situation.?

Chakib San, who lives in an adjacent building, said he was awakened by cries of ?Fire! Fire!? and saw three persons jump, including a woman and a child who lay motionless after hitting the ground.

?They were on the ground. They weren’t moving,? he said. ?Everyone was screaming. There were bodies in the road.?

The prosecutor’s office opened an investigation, judicial officials said, though ?at this stage, we have no indication that it was anything but an accident,? Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said at the scene.

President Jacques Chirac called the fire one of Paris’ ?most painful catastrophes.?

Fifty-three persons were injured, 11 seriously. Police did not release the identities or nationalities of the dead. The injured came from France, Senegal, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Ukraine and Algeria, police said.

A Canadian also was slightly injured but released after hospital treatment, said Canadian Embassy spokesman Normand Smith. U.S. Embassy Consul General Donald Wells said three Americans of student age were staying at the hotel but were not injured.

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