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Hôtel Paris-Opéra: “There were so many deaths, it has to count for something”

Translated Monday 25 November 2013, by Mia Timpano

As the inquiry into the 2005 fire at the Hôtel Paris-Opéra which killed 24 people, including 11 children, begins this Thursday in Paris, Paul Kenmeugne, 55, who lost his wife in the disaster, tells us what his family has been through. After eight and a half years, he is hoping the inquiry will provide closure and answer his numerous questions.

He does not want to receive guests at home. Since May 2005, Paul has been living in public housing at the porte de Saint-Cloud. “Without the tragedy, we wouldn’t have had this accommodation,” he says. “That still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.” It took the loss of his wife for Paul and his twins – who today celebrate their eleventh birthday – to obtain their housing and visas.

The day of the fire, Paul had only been in France for 48 hours. His wife, Charlotte, his son, Eli Kelian, and his daughter, Ana Cassandra, had arrived ahead of him. On the phone, Charlotte had told him: “The hotel isn’t that great...” Like the majority of migrants, the Kenmeugnes were not in desperate circumstances. In Cameroon, Paul had worked in the business sector and Charlotte was a medical secretary. But the couple had not managed to have children, which was frowned upon. When his wife finally fell pregnant with twins at 38, they decided to give their children every possible opportunity in life by moving to France. She left first, he would join her later.

At the Hôtel Paris-Opéra, their room on the fourth floor overlooked the street. It was a little after 2am, 15 April 2005, when the fire took them by surprise in their sleep. “I heard the noises and woke up my wife. When I opened the door to the room, I saw the flames.” Paul grabbed hold of one of the then two-and-a-half-year-old twins under his arms and ran towards the stairs. Faced with the flames and smoke, he gave up. Back in the room, he opened the window. Pungent smoke suddenly filled the room. The air became unbreathable. Stuck to the burning railing, the couple gasped for air. On the ground, the children were protected from the smoke. Suddenly, water spurted up into their eyes. When Paul regained his sight, he couldn’t see his wife. Then he heard a voice: “Give me the children!” The firefighters were at the window. The children were saved first of all, then Paul climbed down the ladder alone. Once at the bottom, he searched desperately for Charlotte, but in vain. He was transferred to the Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital where his lungs were “cleaned”. “It was so black, what came out,” he recalls. After one week of frantic worry and searching Paul learned that his wife had died after falling from the fourth floor. “Today, I still don’t understand,” he says, deeply affected. “She said nothing to me. When I lost her, I lost everything.”

Today Paul has a 10 year visa and is a postal clerk near the Champs-Élysées. He hopes that the inquiry will answer the questions that have haunted him for eight and a half years: “We know the source of the fire, but why did it spread so rapidly? Why were there so many victims? A proper inquiry will allow families to mourn and ensure that people will never again go through what we went through. There were so many deaths, it has to count for something.”

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