Last July, an apartment in the Grenoble suburb of La Villeneuve caught on fire and quickly became an inescapable inferno of flames and smoke. Two young boys stood on the balcony, desperate to escape, but with no way out behind them. They had to jump.
In her description for the BBC, Myriam Lahouari examines the seven men who stood on the ground ready to catch them. These men were strangers to the boys, and to each other, but shared in their bravery — catching a child flying through the air like a cannonball is no mean feat, and several received injuries requiring surgery in the attempt.
Ten-year-old Sofiane is much bigger and heavier than his brother. Mouhsine, a former security forces officer with the Royal Palace in Rabat, looks up and tries to estimate. About 40 kilos, he guesses. He knows the force will be much more difficult to absorb.
Guelord is to his right, strong enough, Mouhsine reckons, that between them they can lock together to brace against the impact. He grabs the 29-year-old’s arm.
The men are worried – they can’t see Sofiane. But he soon reappears through the thickening smoke. He climbs through the open window to sit on the sill. His feet dangle over the edge, and he looks down at the ground.
The men wait. It seems like an eternity but it’s only a few seconds. Finally, he levers himself over the windowsill, hangs, then lets go.
His right foot strikes Mouhsine, his left foot Guelord. Both fall under the impact. Mouhsine screams in pain. The bone in his wrist looks deformed. Guelord realises he has broken his thumb. Walid has fractured his wrist, Lucas his hand. Bilal is thought to have broken a finger.
But Sofiane is unharmed. “He landed directly into our arms,” says Walid. Elyasse weeps in relief. “The two children were unscathed – it’s a miracle,” he reflects.
“We didn’t have much time to discuss and decide, everything was done by instinct,” adds Mouhsine.
The seven men are all from the local area, and their efforts, along with the dozens of other residents involved in the rescue effort, highlighted a real sense of community. Not many people realize that this camaraderie exists in La Villeneuve, an area with such a bad reputation that the address has become “so stigmatized that its young residents struggle to get a job.” Does this suburb deserve this image, or did “the catch” prove it to be something different? There is certainly a troubled history here — the men who saved the boys are all immigrants — on an estate that ten years previously erupted in violent rioting that provoked an anti-immigration speech by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
In the summer of 2010, a man from La Villeneuve was suspected of stealing from a local casino, and was killed in the police shoot-out that followed. His death triggered three nights of looting and arson in the area. A few days later Sarkozy made a hard-hitting and widely criticised security speech in Grenoble.
“We are seeing the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which have ended in the failure of integration,” he said. “We are so proud of our integration system. Perhaps we need to wake up? To see what it has produced. It worked. It doesn’t work any more.”
He called for foreign-born residents threatening the police to be stripped of their citizenship.