PARIS – People jumped from windows or screamed for rescue from flames Friday as a pre-dawn fire roared through a Paris hotel used by City Hall to house needy African families, officials said. At least 20 people were killed, half of them children.
The blaze was thought to have started in a first-floor breakfast room of the one-star Paris Opera hotel (search), in the capital's touristic 9th district, fire officials said.
More than 50 people were injured, 11 seriously. Eight hours after it was extinguished, rescue workers were still pulling bodies from the inside the scorched building.
Many guests were African. A statement from Paris City Hall said that 65 people had been placed in the hotel by state services, while 14 others — eight of them children — were placed there by city officials. French social services typically place people in hotels while seeking longer-term housing solutions.
The Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation for manslaughter, judicial officials said.
"At this stage, we have no indication that it was anything but an accident," said Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin (search), visiting the scene.
The fire broke out after 2 a.m. (8 p.m. EDT Thursday), when most guests would have been sleeping. It spread quickly, causing panic, officials said.
"One can imagine young children, parents without their clothes, in the middle of the night, fast asleep, smoke, cries, tears," fire services spokesman Laurent Vibert on Europe-1 radio.
At least one person sought refuge on the burning roof, screaming and waving frantically for help as flames poured from windows and fire officers scrambled up ladders. Two others yelled for help from the window of a burning room. A fire officer cradled an infant in his arms as he carried him to safety amid jets of water from fire hoses that doused the flames.
The injured came from France, the United States, Portugal, Senegal, Tunisia, Ukraine and Ivory Coast, Paris police said. Vibert said a Canadian also was slightly injured. The nationalities of the dead were not immediately made available.
Fire officials said some people jumped out of windows to escape the smoke and flames.
Chakib San, who lives in an adjacent building, said he was awakened by cries of "Fire! Fire!" He said he saw three people 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," he said. "There were bodies in the road."
The injured were treated and the dead bodies temporarily stored in Galeries Lafayette (search), one of Paris' busiest and most famous department stores.
French President Jacques Chirac (search) said it was one of Paris' "most painful catastrophes."
The fire took more than an hour to bring under control and still smoldered hours later. More than 250 firefighters and 50 fire engines were at the scene.
Nearly all of the hotel's six floors were blackened inside.
The dead were recovered "from the road, from inside, just about everywhere," said Vibert, the fire services spokesman. Another spokesman, Christophe Varennes, said the building's fire safety measures had been checked as recently as a month ago.
The bodies of four people of African origin were found in the first-floor breakfast room where the fire was thought to have started, Vibert said.
"We heard a lot of screams," said Stanislas Bricage, a Frenchman evacuated from an adjacent hotel — along with about 20 Americans, wrapped in golden survival blankets but did not appear injured.
San, the neighbor, said he spoke to Australians, Canadians and Tunisians who escaped from the hotel. A woman who works in a nearby hotel brought out a ladder and together they used it to rescue a girl from the first floor, said San.
"We got out a little girl. The fire services arrived just afterward," he said.