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13 die in 'worst fire in a decade'

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Fire in French bar started by birthday cake candles, say authorities

A fire sparked by birthday cake candles tore through a bar in northern France early on Saturday, killing at least 13 people in the nation's deadliest blaze in over a decade, investigators said.

Through the shattered front windows of the Au Cuba Libre bar in the city of Rouen, in the Normandy region, melted stools and scorched liquor bottles were visible, as tearful mourners hugged each other and brought flowers to the scene.

The dead were aged between 16 and 25.

One of the six injured, a woman who was badly burned, was transferred to St Louis Hospital in Paris, where she was in a life-threatening condition, local deputy prosecutor Laurent Labadie said.

The mayor of Rouen, Mr Yvon Robert, said that the other five people who were injured had been discharged from hospital.

Authorities said the bar had been crowded with young partygoers.

According to a police source, the birthday party was for a former police community support officer who was among the dead.

Mr Labadie told AFP that the blaze, which began at around midnight in the bar's basement, was triggered accidentally.

"Someone came down with a birthday cake with candles and fell down the stairs," Mr Labadie said, citing initial investigation findings.

"The candles were thrown onto the walls and ceiling, where there was soundproofing material. There was an immediate conflagration and gas was released."

Firefighters were soon at the scene, but those inside the bar were battling deadly fumes as well as the flames.

Police said the fire ignited polystyrene on the ceiling of the basement room, releasing a toxic mix of gases that poisoned the victims.

One witness, who gave her name as Stephanie, 36, described the moment the fire took hold.

"I was at the bar on the ground floor having a drink, when we saw the flames - it was like a flame-thrower, everything happened so fast," she told reporters.

French President Francois Hollande voiced his sympathy for the victims' families and said that everything would be done to find out what caused the fire.

The investigation will focus on whether building safety rules were respected at the bar, particularly in relation to fire exits and flammable materials.

Under French building regulations, polystyrene panels are banned from use on ceilings, and bars like the Au Cuba Libre must be equipped with at least one portable fire extinguisher.


But a source at the crisis cell of the interior ministry said that "unfortunately there are always people who try to get round the rules between safety inspections, which are sometimes pre-planned, sometimes unannounced".

The bar, in a busy part of town and no more than 200m from the River Seine was popular with young people.

"It was more than a bar, it was family," said a 20-year-old who gave his name as Willy, standing disconsolately outside the building's ruined facade. "It's where we went to be all together."

A woman whose 18-year-old daughter had died in the fire said she had asked her not to go to the party.

"But she didn't listen" the weeping mother said, adding that her daughter had wanted to be a nurse. - AFP