The area of high-rise public housing blocks saw riots in 1990

Lyon (AFP) - Ten people, five of them children, died in a pre-dawn blaze Friday in a rundown apartment block in a deprived suburb of Lyon, the French government said.

The blaze in Vaulx-en-Velin broke out at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) in a building known as a drug dealing spot, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

“All the flats were destroyed by fire… It’s pretty shocking,” 22-year-old Yasmine told AFP. “There were no fire doors, no fire extinguisher.”

The student, who declined to give her last name, said one of the building’s doors had been “blocked by police, which undermined everyone’s safety”.

Other eyewitnesses also reported the door being blocked.

Lyon police have launched an inquiry into the cause, including possible arson.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said firefighters had risked their lives to rescue trapped residents

Darmanin said it was too early to determine how the fire started but hailed the work of firefighters, who arrived on the scene 12 minutes after being alerted.

They “were able to save 15 people by taking considerable risks for their own lives by climbing the building from the outside because they couldn’t get inside and saving children and babies up to the seventh floor”, he said.

“Without the rapidity of the fire services and their heroism, the toll would have been much worse.”

Twenty four people were injured, including four “whose lives are still in danger”, Darmanin said. Some of the bodies of the deceased were still being identified, he added.

- Children dropped from windows -

The fire broke out on the ground floor and needed 180 firefighters and 70 fire engines to bring it under control, the authorities said.

Witnesses at the scene described panicked occupants of the building screaming for help as smoke billowed from the windows.

Several described children being dropped to crowds at the foot of the building, while one woman was said to have died after jumping from an upper floor to escape.

“I heard people shouting ‘help, help, help, help us’,” said Assed Belal, a young resident of the neighbourhood.

“There were people on the ground, others stuck on the balconies and the firefighters had difficulty in intervening because of the trees,” he told AFP.

Two of the 170 firefighters at the scene suffered light injuries

He said his friends had told him they managed to catch a 10-year-old boy who was dropped to safety by his mother.

“After, she jumped but then she died from her injuries,” he added.

“My cousin got trapped and she’s still missing. We’re waiting for the police and the fire service to tell us if she’s on the list of people confirmed dead,” Murat Kara told AFP.

Darmanin said residents had complained about drug dealing and squatters in the building, which was described as “rundown” by Lyon city authorities.

Housing Minister Olivier Klein told reporters it had undergone emergency repairs in 2019.

“At this stage, we can’t blame the state of the building (for the fire),” he added.

- Donations for the homeless -

Thirty eight families – around 100 people – have been made homeless, said officials in Lyon.

Local authorities took the survivors to a council hall, where locals brought them food and clothing. The head of the regional authority said he would provide 96 beds in a boarding school dormitory until the end of the Christmas holidays.

Vaulx-en-Velin, home to a large immigrant population, is just five kilometres (three miles) from the centre of Lyon but a world away from its fancy restaurants and elegant buildings.

Antiriot police outside the burnt-out block of flats

Thirty-three percent of people there live in poverty, according to the latest figures from national statistics institute INSEE

The formerly industrial area is dotted with high-rise public housing blocks, and was the scene of violent riots in 1990 sparked by the death of a youth who was hit by a police car.

It has been a laboratory for various urban renewal efforts since.

In the early 2000s, the Lyon authorities injected 100 million euros into the area to improve living conditions, providing local shops and public transport.

In 2005, 24 people died in a fire in a rundown Paris hostel housing families of African origin.

A woman was jailed for starting it by throwing clothes onto lit candles during an argument.