NEW ORLEANS – Eight people who were apparently trying to keep warm inside of a Ninth Ward abandoned building were killed when structure caught fire early Tuesday morning.
Firefighters responding to the scene made the gruesome discovery of the bodies, burned beyond recognition.
One man was able to escape and another woman who had been staying in the building said she saw it in flames as she returned to try to spend the night and escape the near freezing temperatures.
“Our sleeping bags, everything we had was destroyed,” said the woman who did not want to be identified.”One of my best friends was in there sleeping. Right when I saw the fire, I knew they were dead.”
The State Fire Marshall said the incident was the worst fatal fire in the city in nearly 17 years.
The woman said she believes most of the victims were in their teens or 20s and that they were trying to stay warm and band together. She said many of them were from out of town and they had come to New Orleans due to its more open society and the ability to get temporary work.
Fire Chief Charles Parent said they are still investigating the cause but that it appeared that a fire had been started in a container.
The woman, who had been staying in the building off and on, said she thought staying with her friends would be safer than a shelter.
“It’s a lot safer in a shelter than in an abandoned building,” said Parent. “Anyone can come into there. There is no protection and no way to keep warm or heat up food.”
Parent said the fire department has a policy to try to check abandoned buildings and to lock them up to avoid such situations. He said the number of abandoned buildings, especially after Katrina, makes it a less than failsafe idea.
“It’s the sheer number of buildings and once you check the building and seal it, if you are gone a period of time, people find a way to get inside.”
Fire officials are hoping to determine the cause of the fire and to identify the victims.