(AFP) – Aug 7, 2009
BRUSSELS — A fire which killed nine elderly people at a care home in Belgium was probably caused by an electrical fault, officials said Friday.
While the start of the fire has not yet been determined, it appeared to be caused by a fault in an electric fan or a television which set a mattress ablaze, sending smoke and deadly fumes billowing through nearby rooms.
Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy sent a telegram with his condolences to the Kanunnik Triest convalescent home in the Flemish town of Melle.
"The fire fighters, volunteers and staff did all they could but unfortunately it was impossible to bring everyone out," local mayor Dirk De Maeseneer told RTBF radio.
"It's a catastrophe for the commune." he added. "These were very old and therefore less mobile people."
While experts were continuing their work, there was every sign that the fire was started accidentally, said Isabelle De Tandt, spokeswoman for the local prosecutor.
One investigator blamed the fire on a television exploding and setting a mattress alight in the building in the northern Flanders region.
The victims, seven women and two men, died of smoke inhalation, according to an investigator, with the fire itself confined to a single room.
One person was in critical condition on Friday and four remained in hospital.
The home, where some 90 pensioners lived, did not have an automatic fire extinguisher system, which is not obligatory on such premises, fire officers said after the fire broke out on Thursday evening.
While the rooms were fitted with fire-retardant doors there was no obligation for these to be kept closed, particularly in the hot summer weather, said the home's director Geert Buyse.
"The victims lived on the same wing of the building on the second floor. There were 15 residents in that wing. Nine of them died while the other six could be rescued," he said.
A fire evacuation exercise was carried out in June, Buyse said.
The woman in the room where the fire broke out was questioned but was unable to give an exact reason for the fire.
Fifty of the elderly evacuees were taken into care by their families or the local authorities pending their return to the rest home.
Firefighters brought the fire under control late Thursday, said Melle's deputy mayor Dany Cottenie.
Twelve-year witness Manon Valcke, who was passing as smoke poured from the building, said "a nurse ran out into the street. She was shouting 'help, help'.
"I went straight into the home and got some people out of their beds, I put them in a wheelchair and helped them to leave the building," the girl told Flemish newspaper De Standaard.
"Everyone is strongly touched and we will evaluate the situation with the crisis committee," said East Flanders Governor Andre Denys.
"Our thoughts are with the victims and their families," he added.
A book of condolences was opened at the local town hall.
Some of the pensioners, those living on the virtually unaffected ground floor were allowed to return to their rooms on Friday. The rest will be allowed back over the weekend, De Maeseneer said.
A moment of remembrance for the victim will be observed next week.
The fire was among the deadliest in Belgium for decades.
The worst case in the last 50 years was in 1967 when 323 people perished in a fire in a Brussels department store.
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