BERLIN: Fourteen people perished and several more were injured when fire swept through a workshop for handicapped people in the Black Forest region of Germany on Monday, authorities said.
Around 300 firefighters backed by helicopters battled the blaze in the town of Titisee-Neustadt in southwestern Germany for more than two hours, as some wearing breathing apparatus pulled several people from the stricken building.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known but there was a large police presence at the site. At least one explosion was believed to have taken place in a storage room.
It was still unclear whether chemicals were stored in the room, but the workshop’s activities included the treatment of wood.
Pictures showed smoke billowing out of the three-storey concrete building and firefighters helping the injured, some in wheelchairs, to helicopters and ambulances.
“We can tell you that we have 14 dead. The process of identification is ongoing,” Karl-Heinz Schmid, a spokesman for police in the nearby city of Freiburg, told rolling news channel N24.
“We also have a large number of injured who have been taken to hospital.” Authorities told the reporter that seven people had been seriously injured, revising up an earlier toll by one. Most had suffered injuries due to smoke inhalation, according to police.
However, all seven were expected to survive, Focus magazine quoted police spokesman Alfred Oschwald as saying.
Another police spokesman, Marco Troll, told the reporter: “The building is empty. There are no further dead.” A source close to Caritas, the welfare association that runs the workshop, said there were 50 or 60 people aged between 20 and 65 in the building when the blaze broke out.
In total, the workshop employed some 120 people with disabilities.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the majority were mentally disabled workers who were manufacturing wooden decorations for Christmas as well as other electrical and metal goods.
The building was relatively modern and fully respected the fire regulations, this source stressed.
Psychological specialists were treating relatives of the victims at the scene.
“We are dealing here with people who of course do not react rationally,” local agency DPA quoted local fire chief Alexander Widmaier as saying.
In 1996, 16 people died in a blaze at Duesseldorf airport.
In February 2008, nine people died, including five children, when a blaze ripped through a block of flats in the western city of Ludwighafen.
Founded in Germany in 1897, Caritas has a presence in some 200 countries. The organisation employs some 559,000 people in 24,500 centres across Germany.
Separately, Germany is set to tighten its laws against bestiality in a bid to improve animal welfare, a lawmaker involved in drafting the legislation said on Monday.
Bestiality was removed from Germany’s penal code in 1969 and since then has only been against the law if “significant harm” is inflicted on the animal.
But Hans-Michael Goldmann, head of the parliamentary commission looking into the subject, told the reporter he wanted to “ban bestiality in a draft law on animal protection.”
According to left-leaning daily Tageszeitung (TAZ), the new legislation will make bestiality punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($32,000).