By Tilman Blasshofer
WINTZENHEIM, France (Reuters) – Eleven people died in a fire that tore through a holiday home for disabled people in eastern France in the early hours of Wednesday, officials said.
The blaze broke out around 6.30 a.m. (0430 GMT), as the holiday-goers with learning disabilities and their carers were still asleep in the two-storey building in the town of Wintzenheim, about 70 km (50 miles) south of Strasbourg.
“I can confirm there are 11 victims,” deputy prosecutor Nathalie Kielwasser told reporters as Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and other officials visited the site of the fire.
A firefighter told Borne, who described the blaze as a “shocking tragedy,” that eight bodies had been found and three more were thought to have been located under the rubble.
Local media said the dead were 10 people with disabilities and one carer.
A neighbour, Nathalie, told BFM TV that she heard people scream and saw huge clouds of smoke from her window. “Everything happened very quickly,” an unnamed witness told France 3 TV.
The holiday home was rented for the summer by two charities that take care of people with learning disabilities, with each group occupying one floor of the house. Twenty-eight people were staying there, 17 of whom managed to escape the fire.
“A few of the people who were (sleeping) on the first floor managed to escape, but most of those who got out were on the ground floor,” Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Hauwiller, who headed the rescue operations, told reporters earlier in the day.
The fire destroyed about two-thirds of the building.
An investigation was underway to determine the cause of the blaze.
Kielwasser told reporters it had likely been a low-level fire that had burnt for a while before growing bigger and tearing the house down.
Those missing were likely to have been aged between 25 and 50, Wintzenheim deputy mayor Daniel Leroy told BFM TV.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Tilman Blasshofer in Wintzenheim, and Zhifan Liu, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Charlotte Van Campenhout, Blandine Henault; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Bernadette Baum, Toby Chopra and Jonathan Oatis)