BARCELONA, Catalonia: A man closes the door of a van that transports the bodies of the fatal victims of a fire that broke out in the early hours of yesterday. - AFP

BARCELONA: A fire ripped through an abandoned bank occupied by squatters in central Barcelona yesterday, killing four people, including a baby and a three-year-old boy, Spanish firefighters said. "While we were battling the fire, we found four people. Emergency services tried to revive them, but unfortunately they failed, they could not do anything to save them," the head of the firefighting operation, Angel Lopez, told reporters.

A neighbour who lives in a flat above the bank said people trapped on the premises had been screaming, pleading for help after the blaze broke out. "It is a huge shame because there were two small children that we saw around here," Miquel Guimera told reporters at the scene.

"There was a lot of smoke... the squatters were screaming, asking for help, because you can see that they were locked up. It was quite traumatic." People had lived in the abandoned office for two to three years, he said. Lopez said it was not clear how the four dead people were related but Barcelona-based daily newspaper La Vanguardia said they were all members of the same family. The father was from Pakistan and the mother from Romania, the paper said.

'The horror'

"There are no words to describe the horror of four people dying, among them two very young children, it is something that never should happen. It is horrible news," Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, a former anti-evictions activist, told reporters. Those in the buiding lived "in absolutely precarious conditions," she added. Four other people were rescued after seeking refuge on the patio and taken to hospital with smoke inhalation, but their lives were not in danger, firefighters said.

Firefighters rushed to the scene at around 6:00 am (0500 GMT) after being warned that a blaze had broken out in the building, Lopez said. The building located in a middle-class neighbourhood was cordoned off and surrounded by emergency vehicles. The name of the bank was crossed out and the door doors were covered with graffiti.

'Complicated situation'

Colau said municipal social workers had visited the building and offered food aid to the people who lived there as well as information on how to get medical care. "We also know that there were coexistence problems and that police on more than one occasion were called to the building," she added. "It is a complicated situation."

Hours before the fire broke out, police were called to the building because of a dispute among squatters but there is no evidence it was related to the blaze, Catalonia's regional interior minister Joan Ignasi Elena told reporters. A spokesman for Catalonia's regional police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, said an investigation had been opened into the causes of the fire.

In December 2020, four people were killed after a blaze ripped through an industrial complex occupied by squatters, many of them African migrants, near Barcelona. Over 100 squatters were believed to be living in precarious conditions at the abandoned complex in Badalona, a suburban town north of the city. In addition to the four deaths, more than 20 people were injured in the blaze. - AFP