‘Pure Instinct’: The Extraordinary Rescue of 2 French Boys From a Fire

PARIS — Both the rescuers and the rescued refused accolades for bravery. But both were saluted across France on Friday for coming together in an extraordinary act that saved the lives of two small children threatened by a raging fire this week in a third-floor apartment in Grenoble.

The biggest hero was a 10-year-old boy, Sofiane Laout, who plucked up his 3-year-old brother, Soleiman, by his T-shirt, and dropped him out the window into the arms of rescuers nearly 40 feet below. Then he leapt out right after him.

“I just closed my eyes, and jumped,” Sofiane told French radio in a nonchalant interview Friday morning, three days after the incident. The rescuers caught him as well, and suffered broken arms and wrists as a result.

Friday night, Sofiane’s mother, Rachida Laout, said the little boy was too tired to come to the phone. The brothers could be heard shouting in the background.

“My son is very brave,” she said. “Both of them are very brave. They are alive thanks to the people in the neighborhood, all those who were below. These are good people.”

The family could scarcely believe the extraordinary sequence that saved the children. “It was almost a catastrophe. We came right up against the death of those boys,” their uncle, Farid Laout, said in a telephone interview Friday night.

He had arrived on the scene shortly after the rescue, when flames and smoke were still pouring from the apartment. His two little nephews were still stunned.

“They were in shock,” Mr. Laout said. “The little one didn’t even realize what had happened.”

The rescue itself hung on the merest chance.

“There were maybe five or six of us. We did not plan anything,” one of the rescuers, Athoumani Walid, said in an interview Friday night. “It was pure instinct. We wanted to save them but we did not know how. We told each other we needed to come together to catch them during the fall. It was the only solution,” said Mr. Walid, a 25-year-old student from the Comoro Islands.

Sofiane told his uncle afterward: “Either I jump, or I die.”

After pitching Soleiman down to the men below, “he saw that his brother was alive, and that gave him confidence,” Mr. Laout said.

The boys’ parents were out, the mother shopping and the father at work. “It all happened in the space of 20 minutes,” Mr. Laout said.

“Quickly, quickly I will be back,” Ms. Laout said she told the boys, who were not seriously harmed.

The drama unfolded in a 1960s-era apartment block in the immigrant and poor Villeneuve district, which has a troubled recent history.

There were riots there in 2010 after a man accused of robbery was killed in a shootout with the police. The president of France at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, delivered a harshly anti-immigrant speech in the wake of the rioting, which provoked sharp reactions in the country, and for which he later apologized.

The neighborhood is scorned by residents of prosperous central Grenoble as a haven of crime and ethnic separatism, said a local writer, Hervé Bienfait, who wrote a book about Villeneuve. “It suffers from its reputation,” he said.

But it is unfair, Mr. Bienfait said, and in this case the residents, immigrants and children of immigrants, pulled together in an “extraordinary act,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s a neighborhood where there is a lot of initiative.”

Stéphane Gemmani, a regional councilor from Grenoble, agreed that the neighborhood’s true spirit was expressed in the rescue. “There’s a real solidarity in this multicultural place, rooted in Mediterranean values, where everyone cares for each other,” he said.

On Friday, Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle, said the rescuers would be awarded the city’s medal.

Prosecutors said the two parents would be questioned for “abandonment.” The police are unsure about why the fire broke out, but by the time the rescuers gathered, a thick column of black smoke was pouring out the window, as captured in a video shot by a resident.

“I was in my room watching TV. And then the smoke started coming,” Sofiane told French radio Friday. “I tried to escape into the kitchen, and then the smoke started coming in there too.”

Mr. Walid said he “saw a child at the window crying for help.”

“He told me he was from the third floor but did not have the keys,” Mr. Walid said. “We were three coming up the stairs, and we heard shouts behind the door. We tried to smash the door but it was too hard. It was impossible,” he said.

At that point, the decision was made to gather under the window and catch the boys.

“We came downstairs where everybody shouted: ‘Jump! Jump!’” Mr. Walid said. Sofiane held his brother in the air for a few seconds by his T-shirt

“I put my little brother out the window, so that he could breathe,” Sofiane told French radio.

The rescuers, gathered below, yelled up to Sofiane to throw his brother down.

The older brother let go of the T-shirt, and the 3-year-old whirled in the air before landing in the arms of the men below.

“We repeated to him to jump, which he finally did,” said Mr. Walid.

“They were telling me to jump,” Sofiane said. “Right, OK, so I jumped.”

Constant Méheut and Théophile Larcher contributed reporting.

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