Posted: Dec 28, 2010 3:43 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2010 3:43 PM
Source: Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS - The deadliest city blaze in decades killed eight homeless squatters who were burning debris in an abandoned warehouse to stay warm Tuesday, authorities said.
Firefighters said they could not tell the ages or genders of those who died because their bodies were so badly burned. A 23-year-old man who escaped told the American Red Cross he could not get back in to help his friends because of the smoke, agency volunteer Thomas Butler said.
Temperatures were just below freezing, not unheard of but unusually cold for New Orleans. The warehouse is in a blighted city neighborhood left even more so by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Agencies that work with the homeless said they believe some or all the victims were in their late teens or early 20s. Linda Gonzales, of the New Orleans Mission, said homeless young adults and teenagers often avoid shelters for a variety of reasons.
"Some of them choose to stay out and you can't make them come in," she said.
Fire Department spokesman Greg Davis said the blaze was reported just before 2 a.m. and fire trucks arrived within five minutes to find the building completely engulfed in flames. Some of the victims may have been rendered unconscious by carbon monoxide, a danger with indoor fires.
All that was left of the warehouse, which sat amid graffiti-covered rail cars and ramshackle buildings, was the blackened foundation and a partial shell of singed corrugated metal.
Nearby, inhabited wood-frame houses, some with Christmas decorations, are interspersed with boarded-up homes with holes in the roofs. The city has more than 55,000 such blighted properties, according to current estimates.
A 22-year-old woman who was not in the warehouse when the fire started told the Red Cross she was one of several squatters who had been using the building for shelter.
Three young people who watched from across the street as firefighters searched for additional victims with dogs said they knew those died, but they would not say more.
Capt. Edwin Holmes said it was among the deadliest fires in the modern history of the New Orleans Fire Department, and the worst since 32 died in a fire at a French Quarter lounge in 1973.
Homelessness has always been a problem in New Orleans, but it has gotten worse since Katrina. Gonzales estimates as many as 3,000 people with nowhere to go may be on the streets on any given night. Shelters only have about 800 beds available, she said, though the city works with them to provide more when temperatures hover near or below freezing.
Still, said resident Ricky Gordon, many homeless people show up in the neighborhood when it's cold rather than taking advantage of available social services.
"I took one guy in last night myself," he said.
Image courtesy of WVUE.