PARIS-- People screamed to be rescued from flames - some even jumped from windows - as a fire roared through a Paris hotel early Friday used by the government to house needy African families. At least 20 people were killed, half of them children, officials said.
More than 50 people were injured, 11 seriously. The fire was thought to have started in a first-floor breakfast room of the one-star Paris Opera hotel in the capital's 9th district, a popular tourist area, fire officials said.
Eight hours later, rescue workers were still pulling bodies from inside of the scorched building.
Many guests were African. Paris City Hall had rented rooms in the six-story hotel to temporarily house nine people from Africa, and state services housed 65 others without means, including some seeking asylum.
The fire broke out after 2 a.m., when guests would have been sleeping. It spread quickly and caused panic, he said.
"One can imagine young children, parents without their clothes, in the middle of the night, fast asleep, smoke, cries, tears," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac labeled the fire one of Paris' "most painful catastrophes."
The injured came from France, the United States, Portugal, Senegal, Tunisia, Ukraine and Ivory Coast, Paris police said. Vibert said a Canadian also was lightly injured. The nationalities of the dead were not given.
At least one person sought refuge on the burning roof, screaming and waving frantically as flames poured from windows and fire officers scrambled up ladders. Two others yelled for help from the window of a burning room. A fire officer cradled an infant in his arms as he carried him to safety amid jets of water from fire hoses.
Fire officials said some people jumped out of windows to escape flames and choking smoke.
Chakib San, who lives in an adjacent building, said he was awakened by cries of "Fire! Fire!" He said he saw three people jump from lower stories, including a woman and a child who lay motionless after hitting the ground.
"They were on the ground. They weren't moving," he said.
"Everyone was screaming," he added. "There were bodies in the road."
The injured were treated and dead bodies temporarily stored in the Galeries Lafayette, one of Paris' busiest and most famous department stores.
The fire took more than an hour to bring under control and still smoldered hours later. Some 250 firefighters and 50 fire engines responded.
Nearly all of the six floors were blackened inside.
The dead were recovered "from the road, from inside, just about everywhere," said Vibert. Another spokesman, Christophe Varennes, said the building's fire safety measures had been checked as recently as a month ago.
The bodies of four people of African origin were found in the first-floor breakfast room where the fire is thought to have started, said Vibert. It spread very quickly, he added.
"We heard a lot of screams," said Stanislas Bricage, a Frenchman evacuated from an adjacent hotel along with about 20 Americans from Wisconsin.
San said he spoke to Australians, Canadians and Tunisians who escaped from the hotel. A woman who works in a nearby hotel brought out a ladder and together they used it to rescue a girl from the first floor, said San.
"We got out a little girl. The fire services arrived just afterward," he said.