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Fire kills nine in elderly home

BRUSSELS, Aug 7 – Belgian authorities were on Friday investigating the cause of a fire at an old people’s home which left nine people dead and another person in critical condition.

The rest home in the northern Flanders region did not have an automatic fire extinguisher system, which is not obligatory on such premises, fire officers said after the fire broke out on Thursday evening.

Most theories pointed to a problem with an electrical device in the room of one of the residents, possibly a television.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy sent a telegram with his condolences to the Kanunnik Triest convalescent home in the Flemish town of Melle.

The victims, seven women and two men, died of smoke inhalation, according to an investigator after the fire broke out, apparently accidentally.

"The fire fighters, volunteers and staff did all they could but unfortunately it was impossible to bring everyone out," local mayor Dirk De Maeseneer told RTBF radio.

"It’s a catastrophe for the commune." he added. "These were very old and therefore less mobile people."

Three of the elderly residents sustained serious injuries but two of them were out of danger by Friday morning, according to De Maeseneer and provincial governor Andre Denys.

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The third was said to remain in critical condition.

Thirty more people were admitted to hospital although there were no details of their injuries. Fifty other residents were taken into care elsewhere by their families or the local authorities.

Firefighters brought the fire was under control late Thursday, said Melle’s deputy mayor Dany Cottenie.

According to a nurse quoted by the online edition of the newspaper De Standaard, the fire was caused by a fan on the second floor of the modern building that housed around 90 elderly residents.

An investigator blamed the fire on a television exploding and setting a mattress alight.

"A nurse ran out into the street. She was shouting ‘help, help,’" 12-year-old girl Manon Valcke, who was passing as smoke poured from the building, told the Flemish newspaper.

"I went straight into the home and got some people out of their beds, I put them in a wheelchair and helped them to leave the building," the girl was quoted as saying.

By the time the emergency services arrived at the scene flames were leaping out of windows and it was too late to reach some of the victims. Two paramedics also had to be treated in hospital for smoke inhalation, added de Standaard.

The occupant of the room where the fire start escaped alive, able to flee the building in time.

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However the fumes spread throughout the building which had most doors open due to the summer heat.

"Everyone is strongly touched and we will evaluate the situation with the crisis committee," said governor Denys.

"Our thoughts are with the victims and their families," he added.

A book of condolences was opened at the local town hall.

Interior Minister Annemie Turtelboom was due to sign the book, along with the governor and the mayor, later in the day.

An examination of the building was underway to decide whether residents could return to their home.

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