WARSAW — It was supposed to be fun, but in the end, there was no escape.
When a fire broke out in a squat, two-story concrete building in northwestern Poland, five 15-year-old girls died, trapped in a tiny windowless room no bigger than a closet, with no emergency exit and no key.
They were locked in by design. The building, a private house in the city of Koszalin, had been converted into an “escape room,” a popular entertainment where groups have to follow clues and solve a series of puzzles in order to find their way out.
But a preliminary investigation has revealed that the house failed to meet even the most basic safety precautions, officials say, raising questions about the safety of hundreds of similar sites throughout the country and thousands across the region. As of Monday, the authorities had ordered at least 26 escape rooms in Poland to shut down amid a nationwide safety review.
In the building where the girls died on Friday, the windows had been covered with makeshift walls. There was no evacuation route. And there was apparently no system in place to deal with an emergency.
The house had never even been inspected to see whether it met the basic safety code, fire officials said. The fire, according to investigators, was caused by a leak in a cylinder filled with a propane and butane mix used to provide heat.
The operator of the escape room, identified only as Milosz S., was arrested on Monday and charged with “deliberately creating the danger of a fire in the escape room and with unintentionally causing the death of people in a fire,” said the spokesman for the local prosecutor, Ryszard Gasiorowski.
Lawyers for the operator said he was devastated by what had happened and was pleading not guilty.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, calling the tragedy “unprecedented,” vowed to do everything possible “to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.”
The deaths of the five high school students cast a spotlight on an industry that has expanded rapidly around the world, with safety regulators struggling to keep up.
Polish authorities ordered inspections of all the known escape rooms in the country — 325 inspected by Monday, with hundreds more still to be examined this week. After only three days, they had found more than 1,100 violations, roughly 400 of which were related to issues with emergency exits.
The growth of escape rooms has been astonishing. It was only a little more than a decade ago when a company called Scrap opened what has been called the first one in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007. Since then it has become a booming business.
David and Lisa Spira, who review escape rooms around the world for their blog, Room Escape Artist, estimated that in 2014, there were 22 escape room companies in the United States.
There are now more than 2,000.
In Eastern and Central Europe, the claustrophobic concept has proved perhaps even more popular. Anyone walking through grand old cities like Belgrade, Budapest and Krakow will stumble across an astonishing array of puzzle rooms.
Some play into historical themes, with people trying to find their way out of a Communist-era prison or war-torn bunker. Hijackings, haunted houses and horror themes are common. There was even a Holocaust room, “Escape from Auschwitz,” that opened briefly in Prague before closing in the face of protests.
“Escape rooms are huge in Eastern Europe,” said Mr. Spira, who spoke in 2017 at the first-ever conference in Poland dedicated to the business.
Mr. Spira said that when he began playing game rooms in 2014, most operators in the United States would lock players in the rooms. But that is no longer the case.
Now, he said, American escape rooms usually provide a key or a button to unlock the door in an emergency — or they just leave it unlocked.
“This seems to be a worst-case scenario on every level,” he said.
In the suburbs of Koszalin, a city of 100,000 people, escape rooms are a relatively inexpensive diversion, costing around $26 for a group.
So when the five friends wanted to celebrate a birthday, they chose one of the puzzle places. It was called “To Nie Pokoj” (“Not Just a Room”), and it advertised itself online as “a place full of mysteries and positive emotions.”
The building, a private family home, was divided into seven rooms. Four rooms were part of the game and were given the themes “Crime,” “Darkness,” “Workshop” and “Party.”
Navigating one room was supposed to take up to 60 minutes. It was not clear which room the girls were in when they died.
Commander Leszek Suski from the State Fire Service told reporters that the room was a 78-square-foot space on the ground floor.
“There was some makeshift furnishing, including two armchairs and a lamp,” he said. “For the people who were in the room there wasn’t much space left.”
The one adult on the premises — a 25-year-old “gamemaster” — told investigators that he was in another part of the building when he first smelled gas.
The man, whose name was not released, tried to turn off the gas, but fumes from the gas cylinder soon ignited into a wall of flames, he told investigators.
“He realized after a moment of terror that he would not be able to get to the door to unlock the exit in the room where the girls were playing,” Mr. Gasiorowski, the spokesman for the prosecutor, told journalists. “The fire had already cut him off.”
The first call to the Fire Department was at 5:15 p.m., according to Pawel Fratczak, spokesman for fire service. Three fire trucks with eight firefighters arrived at the scene at 5:21 p.m.
As neighbors assembled outside, they could hear the screams of the five girls, identified by the police and their families only by their first names: Julia, Karolina, Amelia, Wiktoria and Malgorzata.
Wiktoria managed to place a desperate call to her father as the room filled with smoke, according to a Polish tabloid, Super Express.
She got out one word: “Help.”
As one team of firefighters battled the blaze, another crashed through the maze of rooms looking for the girls, but it was too late.
The girls will be buried together on Thursday.
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