Valencia fire: Last couple saved hail dramatic rescue

  • By Mark Lowen
  • BBC News, Valencia

On Thursday, a fire raged in a fourteen-storey apartment building in the Spanish city of Valencia, killing ten people. The BBC’s Mark Lowen has spoken to the last couple rescued from the inferno.

“Once we jumped from our apartment onto a balcony and could see the flames all around us, that was the moment we thought we were going to die there,” says Sara Jorge.

“But I told my friend, ‘I refuse to die.’ The circumstances around us told us it would happen, but I just knew it wasn’t our time,” she adds.

The 26-year-old from Portugal and her Belgian boyfriend were the couple in the dramatic rescue video from Thursday’s fire in Valencia. They were lifted to safety by firefighters as flames raged around them, while onlookers applauded what seemed like a miracle.

We speak in the hotel where they have moved, during her first interview with an international journalist.

Video Caption,

Watch: Moment Sara Jorge and her boyfriend are rescued from a burning tower block in Spain

Sara and her boyfriend were working in their apartment in the Spanish coastal city when they started hearing sirens. A fire had broken out in the adjacent building, fourteen floors high.

Within minutes it had engulfed the tower. Their block was connected by a bridge – and the fire soon spread to their building, where they lived on the eighth floor.

“We thought it was something minor at first because we didn’t see any smoke,” she recalls. “We opened our door and a neighbor told us to go out into the street. So we gathered some stuff, but when we came out, the two girls who lived across the street from each other said that everything seemed to be under control and that we should stay home. So we went back inside. It was very stupid. Shortly after, we started seeing the smoke.”

By the time they decided to leave, their building had been engulfed by the fire and they could no longer enter the hallway.

The wind, which was reaching about 60 km/h (40 mph), had changed direction and was blowing the flames towards their part of the building. So they jumped to a side balcony.

“We refused to hug because that was a sign of giving up,” she says. “We just gave each other a little kiss. And then we started seeing the firefighters coming towards us.”

The couple thought the first firefighter would begin the rescue, but he was preparing the area and dousing it with water so a second team could come up.

Sara remembers repeatedly shouting “come and save us” amid the confusion. They waited on the balcony for more than an hour and broke the glass so they could climb through. Finally, another firefighter reached them with a crane.

They were the last couple rescued from the burning wreckage of their tower. It is now known that ten people died in the fire.

“We didn’t realize everyone saw us coming down until we got to the ground — and then saw the video later,” she says. “Then we realized how lucky we had been.”

Two days later, Sara says she feels numb and still unable to express her emotions. But when she sees the couple from her neighboring flat, tears flow as they embrace. Manuel Diaz tells me that his girlfriend, who was home when the fire started, is in shock.

“We feel like we’re in a mental battle,” he says, “because we’ve lost everything, but we’re still alive. And that’s the most important thing.”

Image caption,

Sara’s neighbor, Manuel Diaz, says they lost everything in the fire

An investigation has been launched into the fire, which started in one apartment in the larger tower and quickly spread. The cladding – the material used for the facade – is suspected of being a major factor, with reports that it was banned in 2019 due to its flammability, but subsequently not removed from buildings that had used it.

Sara tells me she knew the tower was built cheaply and that the infrastructure was poor due to frequent flooding. When it rained, the walls of the upstairs apartment flooded. Repair crews would repaint and move on.

“There were a lot of red flags,” she says. “But people had their lives there – we had a comfortable apartment, so we stayed. Now I just don’t understand why they let that material stay on the building after it was banned. One day it was so windy and a piece of it just flew away.”

The towers are now just blackened shells, with the life sucked out of them. The larger one, where the fire started, had 138 apartments and about 450 residents.

The displaced people have been told they will stay in hotels until the end of the month and then be housed in newly built social housing. Residents have started a fundraising page on GoFundMe to help with costs, including paying for funerals for those who didn’t make it.

In the central square in Valencia, outside the town hall, residents gather for a few minutes of silence. Heads are bowed, some are wiping away tears. Then there is applause for the firefighters and some families involved in the tragedy.

Sara says she has not been able to contact the fire department since the fire. When they reached the bottom, they hugged their rescuers – and were then rushed to a medical tent and then to hospital for checks.

“When we stood on the balcony, I saw the firefighters looking us straight in the eye. That was trust. I felt like they couldn’t leave us there. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude to them. Ze Ze They didn’t have to risk their lives, but they chose to, and they are the only reason we’re still alive.”

She holds back the tears. “We feel very happy. It’s a strange feeling: happiness mixed with the desire to live. Maybe tomorrow I’ll realize how I really feel.”

Video Caption,

Watch: Early videos of the Valencia fire show how the fire spread

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