Paris Architecture Complicate Fire Rescues

The firefighters climbed one ladder, hand over hand, then shifted over to a second and sometimes a third ladder, hooked precariously from window ledges eight stories above bare concrete.

The architecture typical of many Paris residences – hidden central stairwells and enclosed courtyards – may be charming to tourists, but it can be a deadly maze when on fire, feeding oxygen to flames and hindering access for firefighters. Ten people died early Tuesday in a blaze that engulfed a nine-story apartment building, where firefighters had no alternatives to the precarious rescue.

The building had a narrow internal courtyard that was inaccessible to fire trucks, and the only staircase leading to the exit was in flames. The fire spread swiftly and there were no extinguishers in the common hallways where it started – none are required in most Paris residential buildings.

The building features “create a pull from low to high that pushes up the gas and smoke and can spread the fire, even by nothing more than a simple broken window, climbing from apartment to apartment,” said Francis Matarozzo, a former Paris firefighter who now works for the fire safety company Efectis.

That may have been the case at the 1970s-era building on rue Erlanger, where police said the upper three floors suffered the worst damage. To escape the flames, residents climbed from balcony to balcony; one group huddled on a tiny ledge.

The firefighters brought trapped residents down one by one with a combination of hooked ladders and rappelling equipment more commonly used in rock climbing. But they are standard in Paris and other French cities with similar architecture, said Didier Remy, a commander with the national federation of French firefighters.

Meanwhile, a female resident with a history of mental illness was detained nearby as the building burned. She remained in custody Thursday.

The prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into “destruction by a flammable substance that caused deaths and injuries.” However, the prosecutor said the exact circumstances of the blaze and whether it began in one or more parts of the building was not immediately known.

Police had been alerted to the fire shortly after midnight by a former firefighter residing in the building, who had complained to the suspect about noise.

Firefighters arrived in less than 10 minutes but by then it was too late.

Remy said France is considering a system of ranking buildings by level of danger, especially given how many of France’s buildings are decades, if not centuries, old.

“This is truly specific to France and especially Paris. For these old buildings where there is no access, the law is not retroactive,” Matarozzo said. “You cannot tear down all of Paris to bring everything up to current norms.”