Three women who flew paper sky lanterns to celebrate the New Year are under investigation after a zoo fire in Krefeld, Germany, killed dozens of animals and burned down a primate enclosure, the police said Thursday.
In a statement, the North Rhine-Westphalia Police Force in Krefeld said the women, a mother and her two adult daughters, came to them and said they had let five sky lanterns loose on New Year’s Eve.
Officers had been able to secure four sky lanterns near the primate enclosure, the police said in their statement. The missing fifth lantern was “almost certainly” what started the fire, it added. The women are being investigated on suspicion of negligent arson.
The Krefeld Zoo said on its Facebook page on Wednesday that the fire had gutted the enclosure, calling it an “unbelievable tragedy.” Hours later, the zoo said only two apes in the enclosure had survived and were slightly injured.
“The chimpanzees Bally and Limbo miraculously survived the devastating fire,” the zoo said.
Karin Kretzer, a spokeswoman for the police in Krefeld, said that at least 30 animals had died and that officials were still investigating the exact toll of the fire. She said no humans had been reported injured.
She said the blaze was reported around 12:40 a.m. local time, adding that sky lanterns were forbidden in Germany but were still sometimes used by people celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Berlin and dozens of other German cities and communities have recently enacted partial bans on private fireworks, largely out of concern for air pollution and safety.
The zoo’s website shows that its Great Ape House was home to orangutans, chimpanzees, lowland gorillas, rodents, marmosets and birds. Visitors to the house, which covered about 21,000 square feet, could view the apes across a dry trench.
That house was separate from another enclosure for lowland gorillas, which were not hurt by the fire.
In their statement on Thursday, the police said the three women did not know that there had been a ban on flying lanterns and did not realize they could have started such a fire. The women said that they were deeply sorry, the statement said.
Zoo employees could not immediately be reached on Thursday. On Facebook, the zoo said it would not be open on New Year’s Day and thanked people on social media for an “overwhelming wave of compassion and assistance.”