PARIS, April 15 -- Terrified people jumped to their deaths from windows early Friday as fire gutted a six-story budget hotel in the French capital's premier shopping district. The blaze killed at least 20 people, half of them children, and injured 59, according to police and fire officials and witnesses.
Many of the victims were African immigrants being temporarily housed by the city government in the Paris-Opera hotel, located in the Opera district near the Galeries Lafayette department store. The store, popular with Parisian shoppers and foreign tourists, was turned into a makeshift hospital for the injured.
Firefighters lower a child to safety at the Paris-Opera hotel. Half of the fire's victims were children.
(Paris Fire Department Via AP)
_____Deadly Hotel Blaze_____
Photo Gallery: Firefighters and rescue workers raced to save residents of the Paris Opera hotel, which caught fire early Friday morning.
"We were woken up by people screaming, 'Fire!' and I opened my window and saw flames," said Isabelle Arago, 43, who lives in a building next door. She said she "smelled smoke when the fire started, and it filled the air, and you could feel the heat. But it was raining, which was a blessing."
"The most shocking thing was to see children being thrown by their parents out windows and there was no one there to catch them," Arago said. "They just fell to the ground. It's something horrible and something I've never seen in the 23 years I've lived in Paris."
The dead and injured included people from Algeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Portugal, Canada and Ukraine. Three Americans were registered at the hotel, but they were not listed among the dead or injured, according to the police.
President Jacques Chirac, who visited the scene early Friday, called the fire "one of the most distressing disasters to have struck Paris."
The hotel, located on a narrow side street, is owned by the city government. Though standing just a few steps from fashionable addresses, it was used to house indigent immigrants, political asylum seekers and people evicted from homes elsewhere in the city. The hotel was also a stop for low-budget tourists.
The city had a budget of about $12.4 million for such housing in 2004, the newspaper Le Monde reported. In June it was putting up 4,734 people in various facilities across Paris, the publication said.
"The situation since 2000 has been that, when there are no places left in permanent structures, the people are placed in hotels that don't necessarily conform to hygienic and safety standards, or indeed to standards of human dignity," Pierre Henri, director of the nonprofit organization Terre d'Asile, told the Associated Press. His group helps asylum seekers.
The fire apparently started about 2 a.m. in a first-floor breakfast room, fire officials said. About 75 guests and long-term residents were in the hotel at the time. The flames quickly collapsed part of the hotel's single stairwell, making escape difficult.
Alfred Millot, head of security at Galeries Lafayette, said a guard called him at home and told him of the emergency and he reached the scene within five minutes. "When I got there, I saw people jumping out of windows. It was a very violent fire and seemed like war. The stairs were on fire, the windows were on fire, everything. They always tell you to stay put and put a wet towel under your door, but I guess these people couldn't because the fire was too strong."
A fire department captain, Christophe Varennes, told Le Monde that when the rescue teams reached the scene, they found seven adults and four children dead from jumping out of windows.
Working in the limited space of the street, firefighters ran extension ladders to upper-floor windows, where people huddled in fear as flames pressed close, filling windows a few feet away. According to Varennes, about 60 people were brought down the ladders safely.
The fire was brought under control after an hour, but 12 hours after the blaze began, the building was still smoldering and the area was cordoned off. About 250 firefighters helped battle the blaze.
Fire officials said the blaze appeared to be accidental, but police began an investigation into possible involuntary manslaughter.