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02 Aug 2004 08:28
Nearly 300 people were killed and hundreds more injured when a deadly fire raced through a shopping centre on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital, police said early on Monday.
The toll of the blaze on Sunday was especially high because shopping centre security personnel locked the main doors to prevent customers from fleeing without first paying.
Firefighters believe the fire was ignited by a spark hitting an industrial-sized propane gas tank in the food court.
National police spokesperosn Santiago Velazco said early on Monday that at least 296 people were killed, and more than 300 were injured.
“It is possible that there are more bodies,” said Velazco.
“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.
The blaze consumed a significant part of a supermarket within the shopping complex, which also houses offices and a parking garage.
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.
One survivor, Rosa Resquin, said she heard someone shouting “close them, close them!” and “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”.
“[People] broke the exit door from outside and then we were able to get out,” said Benitez.
“Most people died of smoke inhalation.
Volunteer firefighter spokesperson Roque Gonzalez said that shopping centre security personnel even shot at firefighters when they attempted to force open the main door.
Gonzalez also dismissed speculation that the fire was set off by a car bomb in the basement parking lot.
At least 400 people are believed to have been inside the shopping centre, according to witnesses.
The complex belongs to the Ycua Bolanos chain and includes several fast-food outlets in addition to the store.
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 quickly arrived at the complex on Sunday accompanied by Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto.
“It’s a painful moment,” Duarte told reporters.
“The police and fire service are working to reduce the magnitude of this disaster,” the president said. “We came here to offer our support to relatives as well as police and firefighters,” he added.
Duarte also 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 1932-1935 war with neighbouring Bolivia.
Doctors and emergency workers from the Argentine province of Formosa, which borders Paraguay’s southern border, rushed to the site on the outskirts of Asuncion 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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