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Burst Pipe Leads to 24 Deaths at Hospital for Elderly With PM-World-Cold

January 10, 1985

GRANDVILLIERS, France (AP) _ A water pipe that burst in subfreezing temperatures has been blamed for a fire that killed 24 residents at a hospital for the elderly and sent scores of others stumbling into a bitter cold morning.

Officials theorized that the intense cold - temperatures dropped to 4 degrees Fahrenheit - had caused the pipe to burst, spraying water on electric wires and creating a short-circuit that flared into a fire.

The first sign of trouble early Wednesday was a nurse’s observation that water had stopped flowing in a toilet. Checking the problem, a maintenance man noticed smoke coming from the attic.

Minutes later, flames burned through the roof of the state-run hospital in Grandvilliers, 60 miles northwest of Paris. The roof of the wing housing 88 elderly people collapsed, taking the second-floor down with it. Dazed residents, many pulled from their beds, were rushed out into the snowy courtyard, most inadequately dressed for the short walk to undamaged sections of the hospital.

But staff and firemen from Grandvilliers and nearby towns could not save 18 men and six women who were found dead in their charred beds, most believed dead from asphyxiation.

″The fire spread very quickly,″ said Marie-Louise Lafargue, 82. ″You could see flames everywhere and you would have said the building was made of paper.″

″Everything happened so quickly,″ said Elia Haudiquer, who will be 89 next month. ″They (the firemen) just couldn’t do anything more.″

Cafe owners and bakers served hot drinks and croissants for the survivors and helped comfort them. ″The solidarity of the local people was incredible,″ said a fireman.

It was the worst such disaster in France since 32 people died in a fire set by an arsonist at a home for the elderly in Saint-Jean-de-Cosne, near Dijon in central France, in April 1980.

President Francois Mitterrand, with three ministers, flew by helicopter to the scene, delaying a Cabinet meeting.

Government spokeswoman Georgina Dufoix, who is also minister for social affairs and who accompanied Mitterrand, said the president wanted to ″judge the extent of the catastrophe, see how aid was being organized, and pay homage to the victims.″ Mitterrand did not speak to journalists at the scene but talked briefly with some of the survivors.

The hospital was built in 1920, and officials said it met all the current safety regulations.

The building which burned was completely renovated in 1975, including the electrical wiring, and was regularly inspected by the regional fire safety committee including the mayor of Grandvilliers, with fire extinguishers being checked every two month, city officials said.