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Fire kills at least 21 in hostel for homeless

Latest update : 2009-04-14

An overnight fire in a hostel for the homeless in the northwestern Polish town of Kamien Pomorski has killed at least 21 people and injured another 20, a spokesman for local firefighters said.

AFP - Poland's deadliest fire in nearly three decades tore through a homeless shelter Monday in the country's northwest, killing 21 and forcing parents to toss children from windows to rescuers.

The blaze in the town of Kamien Pomorski spread quickly after breaking out at around 1:00 am (2300 GMT), trapping residents in their rooms in the two-storey building, said Daniel Kowalinski, spokesman for local firefighters.

"It was total chaos," a witness told PAP news agency. "People with their clothes on fire jumped from the windows."

Both Kowalinski and national fire service spokesman Pawel Fratczak said 21 were dead.

Another 21 were hospitalised, including one with serious injuries. An 18-month-old child was among those hurt but was in "satisfactory" condition, according to a doctor cited by TVN24 television.

Fratczak said it was Poland's deadliest fire since a 1980 blaze at a home for the mentally ill in north-central Gorna Grupa that killed 55 people.

"The injured were mainly people who fled the burning two-storey building even before the firefighters arrived," Fratczak said.

Many of those injured had leapt from the windows and suffered bone fractures, he added.

At least 77 people were staying at the hostel for homeless people and poor families.

Firefighters were still searching through the ruins on Monday and the cause of the blaze had not been determined. Police and prosecutors were investigating.

"The fire spread at an incredible speed," Kowalinski said. About 80 percent of the building was in flames when firefighters arrived from a nearby station a couple of minutes after receiving the alert, he said.

"People could not leave their rooms," Kowalinski added. "The hallways were on fire and filled with smoke. Parents threw their children through the windows so firefighters and witnesses could catch them."

Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Lech Kaczynski visited Kamien Pomorski, television reports showed.

The president declared a three-day period of national mourning beginning at midnight, while Tusk promised aid that would include "not only new housing, but also material aid to victims' families."

On Easter Monday in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, he called on "everyone to show respect for the tragedy and show proof of solidarity with the families with sober celebration of this holiday."

The building was constructed in the 1970s as a workers' hostel and transformed into a shelter several years ago. Its roof and two storeys partially collapsed in the fire.

Firefighters said a number of people managed to escape by using an emergency stairwell.

Searches of the burnt building were advancing slowly "because the damage is major," said Kowalinksi.

"I hope that we won't find any other people," he said.

A team of psychologists had been sent to the scene to help those who had escaped.

Date created : 2009-04-13