Spanish officials raise death toll to at least 10 in apartment building fire in Valencia city

The fire started Thursday evening and quickly engulfed the buildings. Neighbors described seeing the rapid spread of the blaze, residents stuck on balconies and hearing children screaming

fires in valencia
Debris falls on firefighters as they work at a burned block building in Valencia, Spain, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.Alberto Saiz (AP/ LaPresse)

Spanish officials on Friday raised the death toll to 10 in the apartment block fire in the eastern city of Valencia. National government delegate in Valencia, Pilar Bernabé said 10 bodies were found in the first police inspection of the gutted residential buildings. She said the bodies matched with the list of 10 people that authorities had deemed missing.

Spanish National Television and private news agency Europa Press reported that four people who had initially been included in the missing list of 14 had been located alive by authorities.

Meanwhile, questions abounded as to how the fire spread so rapidly. Experts suggested that a type of cladding might have made the blaze spread faster, but Valencia Mayor María José Catalá said the cause of the fire was still not known and it was too early to comment on whether some materials used in construction of the modern complex might have contributed.

The fire started Thursday evening and quickly engulfed the buildings. Neighbors on Friday described seeing the rapid spread of the blaze, residents stuck on balconies and hearing children screaming.

“I have no words to describe the suffering of those poor people,” said Sara Plaza. Alejandra Alarcón said that it took 15 minutes for the fire to engulf the entire building. She added that she heard children screaming and explosions.

Experts said that the building’s cladding may have been to blame for the fire’s ferocity.

The vice-president of the Valencia College of Industrial and Technical Engineers, Esther Puchades, who once inspected the building, told the state news agency Efe that the cladding used included polyurethane and when “heated it is like plastic and it ignites.”

She said it was the first fire of its type in Spain, but that other blazes involving the material have been similarly destructive in the United Kingdom and China.

IPUR, Spain’s polyurethane manufacturers’ association, issued a statement contesting Puchades’ claim, saying there was no evidence that polyurethane was used in the Valencia building’s façade.

The June 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in London, which had similar cladding, caused 72 deaths.

In the Grenfell Tower, the exterior walls of the 25-story public housing complex were covered by a layer of foam insulation topped by what are called aluminum composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels. These are essentially two sheets of aluminum sandwiched around a layer of polyethylene, a combustible plastic polymer that melts and drips on exposure to heat.

After a faulty refrigerator started the fire in a fourth floor apartment, the flames quickly spread to the exterior cladding and began climbing up the outside of the building. The fire reached the roof within minutes, then spread to engulf much of the structure, trapping residents in their apartments.

A public inquiry into the fire found that the flames spread rapidly owing to the presence of aluminum composite material and polyethylene, a substance similar to polyurethane.

The complex in Valencia was finished in 2009. In a promotional video, the now bankrupt construction company Fbex boasted that it used a new aluminum-based material as part of its façade.

Fifteen people were treated for injuries and two remained in city hospitals. Both were said to be stable.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited the scene, promising support for those affected and expressing gratitude to firefighters and military personnel who worked to extinguish the blaze.

Pope Francis also sent a telegram of condolences.

It was not immediately known how many people were in the two buildings when the fire broke out, but dozens are believed to have lost their homes and belongings. The complex had some 140 apartments.

The Valencia regional government declared three days of mourning and announced financial aid to cover accommodation, clothing and food.

Weekend soccer games involving Valencia and Levante have been postponed after both clubs requested not to play in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Spanish league said.

Residents were housed overnight in hotels or in the homes of relatives and neighbors, authorities said. Neighbors also responded by donating clothes and food in shops for the survivors.

Firefighters rushed to the scene on the outskirts of the city as flames burst from windows. They used a crane to lift two residents from one of the balconies.

Some 90 soldiers from Spain’s Military Emergency Unit and 40 firefighting trucks also were deployed.

The fire sent clouds of black smoke billowing skyward that could be seen from kilometers (miles) away. Spain’s weather agency, Aemet, reported winds of up to 60 kph (40 mph) at the time.

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