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Hostel blaze kills 21 in Poland

Poland's deadliest fire in nearly three decades tore through a homeless shelter yesterday, claiming 21 lives and forcing parents to toss children from windows to rescuers.

Firefighters stationed just 200 metres away were on hand in minutes but they were unable to prevent the blaze from trapping terrified residents in the two-storey building in the small, northwestern town of Kamien Pomorski.

The fire broke out around 1 a.m. (2300 GMT) and spread "at an incredible speed," said local firefighters' spokesman Daniel Kowalinski.

About 80 per cent of the building was in flames when the first firefighters arrived a couple of minutes after receiving the alert, he said.

"People could not leave their rooms," Mr Kowalinski said. "The hallways were on fire and filled with smoke. Parents threw their children through the windows so firefighters and witnesses could catch them."

Witnesses described horrific scenes.

"It was total chaos," one told Poland's PAP news agency. "People with their clothes on fire jumped from the windows."

The Easter Monday disaster shocked overwhelmingly Catholic Poland and Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Lech Kaczynski rushed to the stricken town to offer comfort to the traumatised victims and population of 10,000.

Mr Kaczynski declared that a three-day period of national mourning would be observed, starting at midnight.

Mr Tusk promised aid that would include "not only new housing, but also material aid to victims' families".

He called on "everyone to show respect for the tragedy and show proof of solidarity with the families with sober celebration of this (Easter) holiday."

Poland's national fire service spokesman Pawel Fratczak said it was the nation's deadliest fire since a 1980 blaze at a home for the mentally ill in north-central Gorna Grupa that killed 55 people.

He confirmed 21 people were dead and another 21 hospitalised, including one with serious injuries. An 18-month-old child was among those hurt but was in "satisfactory" condition, according to a doctor cited by TVN24 television.

"The injured were mainly people who fled the burning two-storey building even before the firefighters arrived," Mr Fratczak said, adding that many of them had leapt from the windows and suffered bone fractures.

A team of psychologists had been dispatched to the scene to help victims deal with their traumatic experiences. Police and prosecutors said they had begun an investigation into what caused the fire as firefighters helped extinguish the flames and began the grim search of the building's burnt-out shell for any more bodies.

Mr Fratczak reported later yesterday that the search effort had been completed and no more bodies found.

At least 77 people were staying at the hostel, which houses homeless people and poor families, when the blaze erupted.

The building was constructed in the 1970s as a workers' hostel and transformed into a shelter several years ago. Its roof and two storeys partially collapsed in the fire.

Firefighters said a number of people managed to escape by using an emergency stairwell.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso contacted Tusk to ask him to express his and the EU's "deepest sympathy to the families of the bereaved and to the Polish people".

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