God is close, archbishop assures after fire destroys Spanish apartment complex

Valencia fire Flowers and candles are laid out on the sidewalk on Feb. 26, 2024, after a huge fire killed 10 people in a multi-story residential block in Valencia, Spain, on Feb. 22. | Credit: MAO/AFP via Getty Images

“The fire spread super quickly, but people’s response has been even quicker.”

That’s how Manuel, a resident of a 14-story apartment building demolished by fire, described the reaction of neighbors, businesses, the local government, and “the whole world” after a blaze on Feb. 22 destroyed an entire residential complex in Valencia, Spain, within minutes.

Manuel was speaking with local RTVE news, recounting his perilous escape from the 12th floor with his 80-year-old mother. He took the stairs down after ringing the doorbells of every neighbor possible. The double towers of the complex included 138 apartments.

“We want to thank the whole world,” he said, explaining how the clothes on his back had been donated by a local store and how surrounding businesses had come forward with donations of food, clothes, and every imaginable necessity.

It was shortly after 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22, when the fire broke out in a northwestern residential neighborhood of Spain’s fourth-largest city, located on the Mediterranean coast. Ten people died in what commentators called the biggest blaze the city had ever seen.

How fragile we are

Though the city on Feb. 23 was set to kick off almost a month of annual celebrations leading up to St. Joseph’s feast day, Valencians entered into three days of mourning.

“In certain moments of life, we experience how fragile we are, our weakness — at a personal level and also at a collective level,” reflected Archbishop Enrique Benavent at the feet of Our Lady of the Forsaken, the city’s much-beloved patroness.

Leading a vigil in the Marian basilica just over 24 hours after the fire broke out, the archbishop insisted that the sensation of fragility and sorrow “doesn’t destroy our hope in the Lord. And because we do hope in God, we come here to the Virgin to ask her help, that she reveal to us the consolation of the Lord.”

The archbishop quickly announced that the Masses of the city would be offered for the victims and for all those who had been affected.

From Rome, Pope Francis sent his condolences the day after the blaze.

‘I set about helping …’

Among those who perished was a whole family: a mother, father, toddler, and newborn.

Six firefighters were among the couple dozen people taken to the hospital in the minutes and hours after the blaze started. And of these, one had nearly lost his life trying to save the young family. 

He was the only one of his team who was even able to make it to the eighth floor, where the family was sheltering in the bathroom. But the numbers marking the apartment doors had melted, and flames were everywhere, making it impossible for him to find where the family was located amid the dense smoke. 

Right before fainting, he was able to get out of the hallway. Three days later, the fireman was still in the hospital receiving treatment from smoke inhalation and burns.

More stories of heroism quickly came to light, particularly that of the doorman, Julián. 

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Although he lamented “I couldn’t get everyone,” countless neighbors spoke of him going floor by floor, particularly aiming for the apartments with elderly residents.

“Julián is the hero of Valencia, the hero of Spain, the one who everyone is greeting and embracing with tears, because of everything he did while the building burned,” one report said.

Julián himself gave a less dramatic account: “I went up because there was a lot of smoke … The fire took over the whole building so quickly. ... I set about helping the people get down… The fire went so fast. … First, I went for the elderly. … I’m here to help them. I’ve always been here to help them.”

“There came a point where the firemen didn’t let me go up anymore,” he continued.

And the people who call him a hero? “Boy. I’ve done this from my heart. I wanted to help them,” he said.

Flammable cladding

The city of Valencia maintains a deep Catholic culture and tradition, with several thriving ecclesial movements. The celebration of St. Joseph is the highlight of the year, as each neighborhood collaborates in an artistic offering, and a multi-story statue of Our Lady is created with flowers in the city’s main plaza. Sunday would have been the start of the fireworks that mark each day of that annual celebration, with an early-morning pyrotechnic event getting the festivities rolling.

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All of this has been postponed for a week as the city observes the three-day mourning period. Food that had been prepared for those festivities and couldn’t be preserved was donated to local nuns who run a care home for the elderly.

Meanwhile, talk continues about how and why the complex was consumed so quickly.

“It was worse than the unimaginable,” reported one off-duty firefighter who showed up to help and fought against the fire from 6:30 p.m. until 5 the next morning. “It was hell on earth.”

Early reports suggested that the aluminum and polyurethane cladding of the complex — lightweight and effective in insulating against heat and cold — was flammable and led to the rapid spread of the fire, which crawled up the exterior walls of the building. It was also an uncommonly windy day in Valencia, which added to the speed of the flames. Construction of the complex was completed in 2009.

On the evening of Feb. 24, Archbishop Benavent celebrated the 8 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Parish near to where the fire occurred.

God is not far from human suffering, he said: “We don’t believe in a far-off God, in an unfeeling God. We believe in a God in solidarity with the suffering of humanity, and who has made his own in his Son, Jesus Christ, all the sufferings of society. We believe in a God who has experienced all of the sorrow of humanity and is not oblivious to this suffering, but in fact, has made it his own.”

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