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Anger, candles may have caused deadly hotel fire in Paris

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

PARIS -- A night watchman's girlfriend who placed candles on the floor to set the scene for a romantic tryst but then left in a rage over his drunken state may have accidentally caused last week's hotel fire that killed 24 people, prosecutors said Tuesday.

The woman, who was detained Monday, told police she placed a dozen burning candles on the floor of the breakfast room of the Paris Opera hotel, then threw piles of clothes on the floor and left after she became angry that her boyfriend was drunk.

The woman, identified only as 31-year-old Fatima, was placed under investigation -- a step short of being charged -- Tuesday evening, judicial officials said. She was in custody.

The night watchman, whose name was not released, was in a coma. France-3 television said the man was "between life and death" after having jumped from an upper floor window during the fire. The report could not be confirmed.

Several guests trapped by the blaze died by jumping from windows of the overcrowded, six-story hotel during the fire, which was Paris' worst in recent memory. A 1973 blaze in an eastern Paris school killed 20 people, 16 of them students.

Officials raised the death toll Tuesday to 24, including 11 children. Twenty-seven people remained hospitalized, 14 in serious condition, officials said. The nationalities of the dead have not been released, but the budget hotel housed many African immigrants and other people without means who were placed there by social services.

Bouquets of flowers decorated the perimeter of the scorched hotel following a demonstration on Monday by two advocacy groups, Right to Housing and Rights First, to denounce "the scandalous treatment the government reserves for the poor and the needy."

Social services have relocated the survivors to another hotel in a Paris suburb, while families continued their search for loved ones.

The statement by the prosecutors' office said Fatima was the girlfriend of the night watchman and went to the hotel at his request.

The suspect told criminal investigators that she "could be" at the origin of the fire that started shortly after 2 a.m. Friday in the second-floor breakfast room, the prosecutors' office said.

"After a violent dispute that she blamed on the inebriation of her companion, she finally left the hotel, throwing several piles of clothes on the floor in a fit of rage, without paying attention to the candles," prosecutors said in a statement.

The 32-room hotel in Paris' 9th district, which is popular with tourists, was meant to accommodate 61 people, but at least 90 people were known to be living there. It only had a single exit.

Police originally suspected an accidental fire caused by a technical problem. The hotel's fire prevention system had been checked March 24 and four recommendations to improve safety were issued, but the problems were not serious enough to close down the hotel, police said.

Still, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Sunday he plans to work quickly toward new measures to reinforce fire regulations, suggesting they could be ready within weeks.


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