HELSINKI—Eight people, some of them foreign nationals, died early Wednesday in a fire at a building housing a hostel that authorities said was operating illegally in the center of Riga, the Latvian capital.
Firefighters and rescuers from the Latvian State Fire and Rescue Service said they were alerted to the scene on Merkel street in the heart of Riga at about 5 a.m.
The building’s sixth floor and roof were on fire, and rescuers found eight people dead. They evacuated a further 24 people, news agency Baltic News Service said. At least six people were hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation.
Latvian state TV broadcast footage of flames pouring out of the top of the building, multiple fire engines, and a ladder extending to the top, from where two firefighters were aiming a hose at the blaze.
Latvian authorities and Riga Mayor Martins Stakis said the state-owned building was housing an illegal hostel at which the operators had recently conducted unauthorized renovation work.
Several of the victims, who are currently being identified, were likely foreigners, Stakis told reporters. The building is located in the commercial center of Riga close to the city’s main bus and railway stations.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or where the fire started but Latvian authorities said the hostel is at the center of the investigation for the cause of the blaze as the property was technically a private apartment and was being used as a hostel without the necessary fire safety and other permissions.
Stakis said on Twitter that, based on the information he received from police, the hostel was operating illegally without documentation, and “the burned building was dominated by foreigners, most likely foreign students, who used the hostel’s services.”
The website of the hostel, called “Japanese Style Centrum Riga,” lists its address as Merkela street 8, apartment 21. It says it has 22 rooms.
According to the Latvian public broadcaster LSM, the hostel had been on the radar of police and the State Fire and Rescue Service, or SFRS, since March because of concerns about fire safety as well as the facility not complying with existing COVID-19 restrictions.
Martins Baltmanis, SFRS deputy head, said his office had earlier received reports from residents of the building of a possible arbitrary construction in the apartment. Reports of alleged drug use in the building also had been reported to police. In March, the hostel was issued with a €500 ($600) fine for not complying with orders by authorities, LSM reported.
By Jari Tanner