Apes, monkeys among 30 animals killed in the German zoo fire

BERLIN: A fire devastated a zoo in western Germany in the first minutes of the new year, killing more than 30 animals, including apes, monkeys, bats and birds, authorities said. Police said paper lanterns thrown nearby to celebrate the arrival of 2020 were probably to blame.

Several witnesses saw cylindrical paper lanterns with small fires inside flying in the night sky shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Gerd Hoppmann, chief of the city's criminal police, told reporters.

People reported seeing those sky lanterns flying at low altitude near the zoo and then began to burn, Hoppmann said.

He said investigators also found used lanterns on the ground that had not been completely burned. They were 34 centimeters (more than 13 inches) long, made of white paper with an opening at the bottom where a small fire would be suspended. The fire heats the air inside, making them fly and shine at night.

Police and firefighters received the first emergency calls at 12:38 a.m.

The zoo near the Dutch border said its entire house of apes caught fire and more than 30 animals, including five orangutans, two gorillas, a chimpanzee and several monkeys, were killed, as well as bats and birds.

Only two chimpanzees could be rescued from the flames by firefighters. They suffered burns but are in stable condition, said zoo director Wolfgang Dressen.

It's almost a miracle that Bally, a 40-year-old female chimpanzee, and Limbo, a younger male, have survived this hell, Dressen said, adding that many of the zoo's animal handlers were shocked by the devastation .

We have to work seriously in the grieving process, Dressen said. This is an unfathomable tragedy.

He said that many of the dead animals were close to extinction in nature.

The zoo said that the Gorilla Garden, which is near its devastated House of the Apes, did not catch fire and that the Kidogo gorilla and six other members of his family are alive.

Germans are generally welcome in the new year with fireworks at midnight and people can buy and launch fireworks. Sky lanterns, however, are illegal and uncommon in Krefeld and most of Germany. Mini paper hot air balloons have been used in Asia for centuries.

After police asked for witnesses to appear, Krefeld police said several people had entered and were being interrogated. Police said they would not disclose details about them.

Hoppmann said some of the partially burned lanterns had handwritten notes.

The Krefeld Zoo, opened in 1975, attracts 400,000 visitors every year. It closed after the fire and plans to remain closed on Thursday.