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

Lyon (AFP) - Ten people died, including five children, in a pre-dawn blaze on Friday at a rundown apartment building in a deprived suburb of the French city of Lyon, the government said.

Prosecutors were probing the source of the fire that broke out at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) in a residential building in Vaulx-en-Velin that was a known drug dealing spot, according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Darmanin said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the cause 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… saving children and babies up to the seventh floor”, he said.

“Without the rapidity of the fire services and their heroism we would have had a much worse toll,” he said.

Nineteen people were injured, including four “whose lives are still in danger”, Darmanin said, adding that some of the bodies of the deceased were still being identified.

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.

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.

- ‘Really terrible’ -

Two of the 170 firefighters at the scene suffered minor injuries while battling the flames, which broke out on the ground floor of the building.

Darmanin said residents had complained about drug dealing and squatters.

Two of the 170 firefighters at the scene suffered light injuries

“The (police) pressure on dealing locations is daily, but unfortunately drugs are deeply entrenched in some areas of the country,” he said.

He added that a dealer had been arrested there on Thursday evening but this was denied by city police, according to local newspaper Le Progres.

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.

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, with hundreds of millions of euros injected into the area to improve living conditions and public transport.

Locals came together on Friday to donate clothing and bedding for around 100 people made homeless by the fire, while an online collection for victims raised more than 10,000 euros ($10,600).

The building that caught fire on Friday had undergone emergency repairs in 2019, Housing Minister Olivier Klein told reporters.

It was described as “rundown” by Lyon city authorities, who had earmarked it for renovation work in January.

Other recent deadly fires in France include one in February 2019 that killed 10 people and injured 96.

In 2005, 24 people died in a fire in a building housing families of African origin. A woman was jailed for starting it by throwing clothes on candles during an argument.