24 killed, dozens injured in Peru nightclub blaze

Fire-juggling act ignited curtains at crowded disco

July 21, 2002|By Hector Tobar and Natalia Tarnawiecki | Hector Tobar and Natalia Tarnawiecki,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LIMA, Peru - A fire-juggling act in a dangerously crowded nightclub went awry early yesterday and ignited a blaze that left at least 24 people dead and dozens more injured.

Most of the people who perished were young adults who died of asphyxiation as they tried to flee the flames at Utopia, an unlicensed disco that had been built recently and that didn't have fire alarms, sprinklers or properly marked emergency exits, authorities said.

The fire started about 3 a.m. and spread quickly through the four-story disco in the Surco district of Lima. Among the victims were children of some of Peru's most prominent political families. The fashionable club is adjacent to the city's top shopping center.

"I started to run. I was one of the first three people out," said one young man, who declined to give his name, as he waited outside a morgue. "There was so much smoke, and I was choking. ... There were people jumping from the windows of the second floor."

When the blaze broke out, about 1,000 people were inside Utopia - more than double its capacity of 400, officials said. Many had come to the club after attending the concert of a popular Chilean band in the adjacent shopping center.

Peruvian media reported that the dead and injured included relatives and friends of the first and second vice presidents of Peru, Raul Diez Canseco and David Waisman. The daughter of a former congressman also died. Several caged animals that were part of the show - including a lion and a Bengal tiger - died of asphyxiation, authorities said. A horse survived.

"This disco doesn't have a construction or an operating permit," said Mayor Carlos Dargent of Surco, who promised a full investigation. "There has been profound negligence on the part of the people operating the club."

The blaze started when a fire-eating juggler inadvertently set fire to the ceiling, witnesses said. Some witnesses said a performer next to the club's disc jockey was breathing columns of fire toward the ceiling when nearby curtains ignited.

Five victims remained in intensive care yesterday afternoon. At least 25 others were seriously injured.

Authorities promised a crackdown on fire safety violations after a major fire in December, Peru's deadliest, which killed 274 people in Lima.

Hector Tobar and Natalia Tarnawiecki are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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