Everything was very quiet in Rue Erlanger that night. And the first firefighters who arrived on the spot, a little after half past midnight, had no idea that they were going to hell. Then they entered the building located at 17 bis, they took a long corridor of about twenty meters. And it was when they came out into the small interior courtyard of the building that they understood. “We saw a lot of people at the windows screaming. Lots of people hanging from the ledges. I saw a person jump. There were flames everywhere, ”explains Aurélien F. at the helm.
“An exceptional fire”
This Friday, February 10, the Assize Court begins its plunge into the blaze which, on the night of February 4 to 5, 2019, killed ten people in this Parisian building. And this morning, it is the firefighters who tell their story. “An exceptional fire, the worst I have seen in my career,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel Xavier Guesdon. who was commanding the incident.
Initially, the firefighters begin to use the stairwell. They manage to bring down a few inhabitants, but they are blocked from the 3rd floor by the density of smoke and flames. Everyone understands very quickly that the rescue will be very complicated. Because there is no access to pass the trucks with the large ladders. No question of intervening by air either. “A helicopter would have stoked the fire by calling for air. It would have been worse,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Guesdon.
The only way to get the inhabitants, posted at the windows, is to climb along the facade, floor by floor. With ladders equipped with “hooks which cling to the railing and small points allowing to hold on a parapet”. A perilous progression. “My guys took crazy risks. They climbed without any security with 19 kg of equipment on their backs,” said the lieutenant-colonel, also acknowledging the composure of the inhabitants at the windows. “Some victims held the hooks of the ladders to prevent the firefighters from falling.”
“I hired my men almost to death”
The rescue operation will last more than two hours. “It’s endless. And I knew I was committing my men almost to death. I was almost certain that I was going to lose one of my guys that evening, ”says Xavier Guesdon. Finally, all his “guys” returned to the barracks. After saving 64 inhabitants. “A firefighter’s mission is to try to save everyone. And there, we left 10 people, ”adds the officer whose voice breaks suddenly. “I’m sorry for not being able to save everyone and that’s also the case for all my guys…”.
It’s Mathieu T.’s turn to speak. A young man of 26 with a clear and composed voice. “I lived on the 6th floor, apartment 72, he says. I was sleeping when I was awakened by a small explosion”. The stairwell being in flames, Mathieu T., still in his underwear, took refuge on his balcony. “There are then a lot of cries, but what strikes me then is the tenor of these cries. They are not only cries of people who are afraid but also who are suffering. On his left, he sees his neighbor Radia, 40. “She tries to descend with a rope made with sheets. She’s hanging on to this makeshift rope, but the sheet lets go and I see her fall to the floor. »
Then Mathieu sees on another balcony the young Adel, 16 years old. “He steps over the railing and he jumps. He too, I see him fall to the ground (…) In his eyes, I saw determination, not fear, ”says the young man who then says to himself that he is going to die. Like Radia and Adel lying at the bottom of the building. “I said to myself: either it will be the flames, or I will throw myself into the void. And there, I regret not having taken my mobile phone to call my father and tell him that I love him. Before dying, ”recalls Mathieu who will be saved by the firefighters.
“I had no solution”
At the helm now, Nadjib A., 49, Radia’s husband. He is with her, that evening, in their apartment on the 6th floor. When they open their door, they see “the fire devour” the entire stairwell. “So we close the door and my wife puts clothes underneath to block the smoke. I’m dressing up. Radia can’t stop talking and I’m completely silent. I was looking for a solution, but I had no solution. Radia says we have to make a rope out of linen. Nadjib A. thinks this is “absurd” and “not at all reasonable”. But he has nothing else to offer so he helps his wife prepare the sheets.
Then Nadjib A. looks for his papers which he cannot find. “Then I turn around and she was no longer there (…) I didn’t realize. I checked on the balcony and the sheet was missing. I shouted: Radia, Radia”, says her husband who cannot see down the building. Too much smoke, everything is dark. It is only after his evacuation by the firefighters that Nadjib A. will recognize the body of his wife. “I was madly in love with her,” he told the Assize Court.
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