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From the November 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 11)

France Feels the Heat

Two Days of Horror

Reali Júnior, O Estado de São Paulo (conservative), São Paulo, Brazil, Aug. 26, 2003

Between Aug. 12 and 14 alone, Dominique Fieux, a general practitioner who serves a clientele from a well-to-do borough of Paris, Auteuil-Passy, whose population was presumably more protected, signed 28 death certificates of aged persons, completely isolated in their apartments, who died victims of the heat. In an interview with O Estado de São Paulo, he recounted the terrible state of those aged persons—between 85 and 95 years old—many of them living as recluses, rejecting contact with family and friends. The doctor related that so-called “solidarity by proximity” no longer exists in the French capital and other large cities.

“In many apartments I visited, the rooms where some of the dead once lived were festering—beside the decomposing body would be soiled linen, newspapers, pieces of paper, empty water bottles, and rotting food,” recounted the doctor, who has nearly 30 years of medical experience. Of his patients, he lost only a 90-year-old woman, whom he had visited on Aug. 12, one of the hottest days. He recommended to her adult children that they give her at least two bottles of mineral water to drink per day, in order to cope with temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius [102.2 F].

But she took only a few sips and ended up dying the next day, when the mercury reached 42 degrees Celsius [107.6 F].

“The scenes I witnessed were among the most horrible, not even police and fire officials dared go near the bodies,” said Dr. Fieux. “Now, as a doctor, in order to certify the death of a person, I had to minutely examine the bodies and ascertain that there was no suspicious cause of death. In that case, the cadaver had to be taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office, as the law requires.” In one of the apartments, he asked the caretaker if he had not noticed anything out of the ordinary—after all, the edition of Le Figaro of the 14th had not been picked up by the deceased tenant. The caretaker, a Portuguese man, said that he had not knocked on the door because, two days earlier, he had been ill received—having even been sent away with verbal threats by the tenant, who died the following day, without any succor. “His voice was loud and strong, and he did not give any indication that he was in such bad shape,” the caretaker maintained.

The poorest of the tenants lived in the “maids’ quarters,” the so-called chambres de bonnes, on the top floor of apartment buildings, covered by zinc tiles. In one of them, hardly 15 square meters [162 square feet], the doctor found the body of a Moroccan woman who had been dead for a week and was exuding an overpowering odor. “Many families, faced with resistance from elderly parents, believed that if they stocked the cupboards and refrigerator with provisions before taking off on vacation, they could enjoy their summer vacations in tranquility,” the doctor explained.

When asked if that human catastrophe could repeat itself, he did not hesitate to answer: “Undoubtedly, so long as selfishness and a lack of solidarity persist, especially with those victims who avoided contact with neighbors and relatives.”

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