Saturday 10 December 2016

Birthday candles blamed as 13 killed in fast-moving basement fire

Samuel Petrequin

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

French firemen and rescue crew gather after a fire swept through a bar overnight, killing 13 people and injuring six, after a birthday cake with candles and sparklers fell to the floor and set the carpet ablaze. Photo: Boris Maslard/Reuters
French firemen and rescue crew gather after a fire swept through a bar overnight, killing 13 people and injuring six, after a birthday cake with candles and sparklers fell to the floor and set the carpet ablaze. Photo: Boris Maslard/Reuters

A fast-moving fire that appeared to be accidental swept through a basement bar in the northwest French city of Rouen, killing 13 people and injuring six others attending a birthday party, authorities said yesterday.

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More than 80 firefighters battled the blaze yesterday at the downtown Cuba Libre bar, and it's not yet known how many people were inside at the time, Rouen Mayor Yvon Robert said, calling the fire "very brief".

The birthday party was "a moment of joy for those involved that ended tragically," Robert said. Vice prosecutor Laurent Labadie said that the first testimonies from survivors and the early police investigation indicated the "fire was completely accidental".

"There was no explosion," Labadie said.

"Candles on a birthday cake started the fire after the person who carried it tripped on the stairs leading to the basement."

Labadie said sound-insulating material on the basement's walls quickly ignited and party guests had no time to escape from the basement. Identifications of the bodies were still ongoing, he said.

At the scene of the fire, residents paid tribute to the victims by laying flowers. Images on French television from outside the bar showed a large ground-floor window broken open, burned red bar chairs and a tattered awning.

The bar fire - the deadliest in France since 2005 - came as the country is on maximum terror alert after two deadly attacks last month and was also the second recent tragedy to hit Rouen, a city in Normandy. A priest was slain by two Islamic State extremists in his church outside Rouen on July 26 and his funeral was held last Tuesday in Rouen Cathedral.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve gave an initial count of 13 dead and six injured in the fire. One of the six remains in a life-threatening condition. Rouen's Archbishop Lebrun, who led the public service for the slain priest, celebrated a Mass yesterday for the bar victims and their families.

A bar owner identified as Bruno by French TV, who was close to the Cuba Libre when the fire broke out, said customers were trapped because the fire moved too fast.

"It happened in three seconds," he said. "Some customers exited on their hands and knees. Some of them tried to use a fire extinguisher, but it was too late."

© Associated Press

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