Firefighters and rescuers in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of the French city of Lyon, on Friday.
Paris CNN  — 

At least 10 people, including five children, were killed when a massive fire ripped through an eight-story apartment block in a suburb of the French city of Lyon early Friday morning.

The fire broke out on the ground floor of the structure in the town of Vaulx-en-Velin, Major Geoffrey Casu, a spokesman for the National Federation of Firefighters, told French broadcaster LCI on Friday. The inferno then went on to engulf the top three floors of the building, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.

Frightened families were roused from their beds by what one resident called “apocalyptic” scenes, as smoke and flames enveloped the remnants of their homes. In an interview with French radio station RTL, the resident said she and her husband put their children under a wet sheet to help them survive.

Neighbors were awakened by the chaos as early as 2:25 a.m., according to BFMTV, by shouts of parents and children screaming for help, some from the balconies of their apartments. Bystanders jumped in to help, using ladders they could find.

Emergency services were alerted at about 3:12 a.m. and arrived 13 minutes later. Around 170 firefighters and 65 fire engines were sent to the scene, the regional authority said. Inside, they found that structure’s internal evacuation routes had been blocked by smoke, according to Casu, forcing them to reach many families ladders.

With the exits seemingly blocked, the woman interviewed by RTL said her family tied bedsheets together in an attempt to escape through their fifth-floor window into the frigid winter darkness. The risk, however, proved too great. They saw neighbors die trying to flee that way.

As they sat waiting for emergency services, the woman’s 4-year-old appeared to lose consciousness. Hope began to fade

“We saw perhaps, I think, death in front of us,” she said.

A police officer stands by near the scene of the blaze
About 170 firefighters were deployed to the scene early Friday.

The woman’s two children were eventually rescued by firefighters and lowered out the window using a mechanical bucket. She and her husband were evacuated down the stairs, through thick, blinding black smoke.

“You couldn’t breathe. The firefighters were all red, we were almost choking,” she said.

“It was terrible, apocalyptic.”

By the time the fire had been put out at 6 a.m., four people were in critical condition and another ten, including two firefighters, suffered minor injuries from the blaze in the town of Vaulx-en-Velin, the regional authority of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes said in a statement.

The dead children ranged in age from 3 to 15, said French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

“It’s obviously a shock, the death toll is extremely serious,” Darmanin told journalists. He and Olivier Klein, the French minister of housing, visited the scene and met with first responders later in the day.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called the incident “tragic” and offered her solidarity and support to the victims and their loved ones.

It’s not yet clear how the fire started. Local prosecutors said in a statement that an investigation has been opened to determine exactly what caused the fire. Nothing, including “criminal intent,” has been ruled out, the statement said.

Technical teams from the judicial police and forensic and fire experts are on the site. Victim support associations have also been mobilized, the statement said.

The prefect of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, Pascal Mailhos, the mayor of Vaulx-en-Valin, Hélène Geoffrey, and a public prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet traveled to the scene of the incident, the regional authority said.

CNN’s Teele Rebane and Kathleen Magramo contributed to this report