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02 Aug 2004 15:57
Firefighters searched early on Monday for more victims as they sifted through the rubble of a shopping centre in Paraguay destroyed by a blaze that killed nearly 300 people.
The toll of Sunday’s inferno at the Ycua Bolanos supermarket, located on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital, was especially high because security personnel locked the main doors to prevent customers from fleeing without first paying, police and witnesses said.
The shopping complex also housed offices and a parking garage.
At least 296 people were killed and more than 300 were injured, national police spokesperson Santiago Velazco said early on Monday.
“We are still removing bodies, though in a cautious, slow manner,” he said, referring to fears that the whole building may collapse due to structural damage.
Firefighters believe the fire was ignited by a spark hitting an industrial-sized propane gas tank in the food court.
Witnesses said that in the chaos that ensued they heard several explosions. Officials said the fire had likely been sparked by gas canisters that subsequently ignited.
Prosecutor Edgar Sanchez, in charge of investigating the blaze, told reporters that shopping-centre owner Juan Pio Paiva will be charged with homicide for blocking the doors.
Paiva surrendered to the authorities, but denied ordering workers to close the shopping-centre doors.
“I don’t believe I’m the least bit to blame” for the fire, Paiva told local television, adding that he “greatly regretted” the tragedy and “shared” in the victims’ sorrow.
Paiva’s son Daniel, the manager of the store, was also detained and questioned by police.
However, one survivor, Rosa Resquin, said she heard someone ordering that the store’s doors should be shut, yelling “no one gets out of here without paying”.
“When they arrived, the police and firemen opened the doors, but it was already too late,” she told reporters.
Patricia Benitez (17), who was being treated at a hospital for second-degree burns, said: “They closed the door in our face.”
“Most people died of smoke inhalation.
Burns might have occurred later,” said volunteer firefighters Captain Hugo Onieva.
Volunteer firefighter spokesperson Roque Gonzalez said security personnel even shot at firefighters when they tried to force open the main door.
At least 400 people are believed to have been inside the shopping centre, according to witnesses.
Gonzalez also dismissed speculation that the fire was set off by a car bomb in the basement parking lot.
Of those killed, only 75 bodies have been identified, Sanchez said. The charred human remains were being taken to a enclosed military sports centre for identification.
Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte visited the complex on Sunday, accompanied by Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto.
“It’s a painful moment,” said Duarte, who declared three days of national mourning for the victims.
The president of the national congress, Miguel Carrizosa, said the fire “was the biggest tragedy since the Chaco War” referring to the bloody 1932 to 1935 war with neighbouring Bolivia.
Doctors and emergency workers from the Argentine province of Formosa, which borders Paraguay in the south, rushed to the site in a bid to boost the number of emergency workers responding to the disaster.
Argentine authorities said they would make their hospitals available to blaze victims, and the Argentine air force readied a plane to speed more aid to Paraguay.
“We must help them immediately,” said Formosa’s Human Development Minister, Anibal Gomez. “Solidarity has no borders.”—Sapa-AFP
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