PARIS (AP) – The deadliest fire in Paris in more than a decade killed at least 10 people on Tuesday as flames engulfed a nine-story apartment building, sending residents to the roof and scaling balconies to escape.
A 40-year-old woman who lived in the building, who reportedly had a history of psychiatric problems, was arrested nearby and detained on suspicion of having set on fire shortly before. French police have opened a criminal investigation into arson causing death.
Several neighbors said they heard the suspect and her neighbor, a firefighter on leave, arguing over the woman’s music before the fire broke out.
Police responding to the argument stopped at the woman’s apartment. The firefighter and his girlfriend told officers they were going to sleep somewhere else in peace and believed the neighbor had lost her mind and that one day there would be an accident because of her, according to a police report seen by the Associated Press.
In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, the 22-year-old firefighter said he returned to the building a few minutes later, shortly after midnight, hoping the woman was gone. Instead, he met her in the stairwell, which was already starting to smell of smoke.
“She wished me good luck telling me that I liked flames,” he recalls in the interview.
Another resident told him later that the woman had put paper and wood in front of her apartment door, the firefighter told the Parisian, who did not give her name.
Survivors described chaos of smoke and flames, and the young firefighter said he ran upstairs in an attempt to evacuate the building. A neighbor remembered coming out of her eighth-floor apartment and stepping through the balconies to find safety.
“I walked through several balconies, with nothing underneath, then I was pulled back into a corner. There were people walking up hand in hand to get to where I was and escape the flames,” said one. resident identified only as Claire, her eyes wide in shock shortly after her rescue.
Another resident, a policeman on leave, put on clothes and rang the doorbell, desperately trying to alert his neighbors.
“I couldn’t save everyone. I can’t forgive myself,” the man identified as Fabrice told France Info radio, adding that the smoke and flames prevented him from rising higher than the fourth floor.
Jacqueline Ravier, who lives on the same street as the building, said she saw a young man blackened by smoke and a woman motionless on the ground.
For hours, she said, flames erupted from the top of the building as the smoky victims fled. Distraught residents were brought to his apartment building and the one next door.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner spoke to journalists at the scene Tuesday morning, as plumes of smoke dotted the sky.
“I want to salute the enormous mobilization of the Paris firefighters,” he said. “More than 250 people arrived immediately and, throughout the night, rescued more than 50 people under truly exceptional conditions.
It is the deadliest fire in Paris since a hotel fire in April 2005 near the famous opera house in the capital, which killed 24 people. More than 30 people were being treated for “relatively” mild injuries, Castaner said. Among the injured, at least eight firefighters.
Authorities suspect the fire was the result of a criminal act, he said.
Authorities said the suspect had “a history of psychiatric problems.”
A judicial official, who requested anonymity while an investigation was underway, told the AP that the woman was drunk when police arrested her.
A police patrol responding to a garbage can shot around the same time spotted the woman with her hand in another garbage can, according to a second police report obtained by the Associated Press. She watched the fire engines rush towards the building, the document says. The young firefighter said he had seen her too.
“She was waiting to see what would happen,” he said in an interview with the newspaper.
The document says officers put the woman under brief surveillance and arrested her at 12:45 a.m. after she allegedly tied a scarf around a car’s rear-view mirror and put a lighter on it.
She was undergoing medical examinations on Tuesday evening.
City firefighter spokesperson Clément Cognon told the AP that firefighters were going door to door to make sure there were no more casualties and to prevent residual fires.
“The situation was already dire when the firefighters arrived,” Cognon said.
Firefighters ripped people off the roof and balconies, at one point begging a man to stay where he was. The fire was extinguished in the middle of the morning.
Rescuers also sought to consolidate the building, which was badly damaged. Footage of the operation broadcast by firefighters showed flames bursting from windows and spanning upper floors.
The building is located rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement, one of the quietest and most expensive areas in Paris. It is close to the popular Bois de Boulogne park and about one kilometer (less than a mile) from the Roland Garros stadium which hosts the Roland-Garros tennis tournament and close to the Parc des Princes stadium which is home to the Paris Saint-Germain, the country’s best football team.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter: “France is waking up with emotion after the fire on rue Erlanger in Paris last night.”
The fire comes a month after a deadly explosion and fire linked to a gas leak in a Parisian bakery.
In September 2015, a fire in a district in the north of Paris killed eight people.
Samuel Petrequin, Nicolas Garriga, Angela Charlton and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to it.