Fire in Valencia, Spain, Leaves Residents Homeless After Panicked Escapes

Fire in Valencia, Spain, Leaves Residents Homeless After Panicked Escapes

Vladimir Likhvan fled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hoping to find safety in Europe, only to watch helplessly as his new home was destroyed in the fire that raged Thursday through a high-rise apartment complex in Valencia, Spain, killing at least 10 people.

Mr. Likhvan, 37, his sister, Victoria Tudovshi, 42, and her 13-year-old daughter lived in rented accommodation on the 10th floor of the tallest of the two buildings that was destroyed by Thursday’s fire. They had recently arrived in Spain after a year living with relatives in Lithuania.

Like the two dozen or so other Ukrainian families also living in the building at the time of the fire, the siblings had started to build a new life in Spain, away from the dangers and destruction of war. But on Saturday, they and many of their neighbors were left with no worldly possessions save the clothes on their backs; they were homeless, shopping for toothbrushes and other basic necessities.

Just down the road, local authorities held a moment of silence for the victims in front of Valencia’s City Hall.

“We need help, with documents, with clothes, with money to buy new tools for work,” said Mr. Likhvan.

Initial suspicions about the cause of the fire fell on construction materials, with investigators seeking to determine whether exterior cladding might have helped fuel the fire.

For now, the survivors of the fire are being offered free hotel accommodation in the city center. A block of 131 apartments, purchased recently by the City Council, will be made available to residents who lost their homes in the blaze, according to a City Council statement.

But outside an old tobacco factory that the council was using on Saturday morning to offer practical and psychological support to survivors, it was not clear if the new housing was being offered for free or not.

Vicente Barberan, 55, who works in catering, is still paying the mortgage on the home that has just burned down. “Another mortgage would ruin me,” he said.

Raimundo González, 38, and Virginia Pérez, 35, bought their apartment in 2014.

“We still have 30 years of mortgage” to pay, said Mr. González, who works at the Valencia port.

On Saturday morning, José Soriano, the head of the local bar association, which is organizing an effort to provide free legal advice to the victims, said the survivors “face many financial and administrative problems, from applying for new passports to working out what happens to their mortgages.” He added that the National Police are offering to fast track the replacement of lost identity papers.

The cause of the blaze is still unknown, as are the reasons for its rapid spread.

Luis Sendra, dean of the Official College of Architects of the Community of Valencia, cited footage on Spanish media of an awning that caught fire on a seventh-floor balcony before the building was engulfed in flame.

“The flames on the awning were blown by the wind against the aluminum sheets on the outside of the building,” Mr. Sendra said. “If the temperature rose to 400ºC, the aluminum may have broken down, and if the insulation inside the sheets was inflammable, it would have caught fire.”

Mr. Sendra explained that Spanish legislation permitted inflammable materials like polyethylene to be used for insulation inside aluminum sheets, until changes were made in 2019 in the aftermath of the 2017 blaze at Grenfell Towers in London. Insulation must now be fire-resistant on all new building projects.

Mr. González and Ms. Pérez, the couple who bought their apartment in 2014, had just come home from work when the fire broke out. Thankfully, their two-year-old daughter was spending the afternoon with Ms. Pérez’s parents. The couple were alerted to danger when they heard cars tooting frantically on the street outside. Then the lights went out.

The only thing Ms. Pérez, who works in the neighboring hospital, had time to grab was her infant daughter’s carriage.

“I feel bad about not taking her toys,” she said breaking down into tears.

As the fire raged, she made it down the stairs to safety. On the way, Mr. González joined other residents in helping a disabled neighbor to safety.

The same harrowing story of narrow escape was being told again and again.

Mr. Barberan who lived alone, is still alive because he went out for a run 10 minutes before the fire broke out, he said. On Saturday, he was dressed in a new set of clothes, but still wearing his running shoes.

Ms. Tudovshi worked from home as an online psychologist; Mr. Likhvan as an online marketing strategist. Ms. Tudovshi’s daughter was enrolled at a local school, and delighted by the chance to learn a new language and live near the sea in “the country of her dreams,” according to Mr. Likhvan.

Mr. Likhvan said that shortly before 5:30 p.m. Thursday, he had just left the building to drop off his niece at language classes when he received a call from his sister, who had stayed home.

“She said she smelt smoke,” said Mr. Likhvan, speaking on behalf of Ms. Tudovshi, whose Spanish is rudimentary. Within seconds, Ms. Tudovshi knew where the smell was coming from. She turned the screen on her phone to show her brother an image of black smoke entering their apartment.

He told her to run.

Ms. Tudovshi narrowly made it out of the building alive. Unable to take the stairs, which were engulfed in smoke, she had no choice but to take the elevator with their two dogs and three other neighbors, also saving their pets. The lift stopped working on the first floor. Luckily, the doors opened.

Ernesto Navarro, 55, a postal worker, was coming back from work when he saw the smoke from afar. Minutes later, realizing it was his home in flames, he phoned his wife, Inajet Rida, and told her to get out.

“I left the apartment in my slippers,” said Ms. Rida, who by Saturday morning was wearing a tracksuit and bobble hat she had picked from the charity boxes that well-wishers had brought to the hotel where many of the survivors are now staying.

Not everyone was so lucky.

“We have friends who didn’t get out,” Mr. González said solemnly, referring to a couple, their newborn baby and two-year-old child, who are among the dead.

“They’d only just come back from giving birth,” said Mr. Gonzalez.