Paraguayan market catches fire

256 die

Some say shoppers were locked in to stop looting after gas tank exploded

August 02, 2004|By Hector Tobar and Luis Maria Paredes | Hector Tobar and Luis Maria Paredes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ASUNCION, Paraguay - At least 256 people were killed yesterday after a propane gas tank exploded inside a crowded supermarket here, igniting a fast-moving fire that left a crowd of shoppers trapped behind doors that may have been locked to prevent looting.

Witnesses said the explosion took place about noon in a basement food-court kitchen where families had gathered for lunch in the modern, mall-size market.

Officials said many bodies were yet to be recovered and the death toll could surpass 300, making the blaze among the deadliest in recent South American history. Public Health Minister Julio Cesar Velazquez described a gruesome scene at the Ycua Bolanos supermarket and at a temporary morgue set up in the parking lot of a neighboring nightclub.

"I saw children, pregnant women, senior citizens and young people," Velazquez said. "It's horrific."

Officials said rescue efforts were hampered by fears that the cube-shaped building, which occupies much of a city block, might collapse. Thick plumes of black and gray smoke poured from the roof for hours after the person believed to be the last survivor was rescued.

Local television network Telefuturo reported that after some shoppers on the floors above the fire took advantage of the initial confusion to steal, one or several managers or security guards sealed some exits

Julio Gimenez, an attorney for the market's owners, denied the charge. "Nothing was closed," Gimenez said. "Everyone who could escape this unfortunate event did."

But witnesses described neighbors scrambling to break open locked doors to allow those inside to escape.

"A group of us went to break all these windows with rocks," one man told Telefuturo, pointing to a series of street-level glass doors pockmarked with holes. "We got a lot of people out that way."

Rodolfo Rodriguez, a local television cameraman, arrived just as the first fire crews did. "I could see people on the floor who were already asphyxiated and burned," he said.

Daniel Paiva, one of the owners of the complex, granted a television interview moments after escaping the burning building. "It was so fast," he said of the fire. "Everything happened in a few minutes."

Paiva, too, said no doors were locked. Later yesterday, Paraguayan authorities detained him for investigation of charges of "culpable homicide." Authorities would not reveal where he was held because they feared he might be attacked by relatives of the victims.

Asuncion's fire department - composed of volunteers - seemed ill-prepared for the magnitude of the blaze. Paraguayan media made a public call for donations of medical supplies and said cell phones were needed to help coordinate the effort.

Firefighters took many of the dead to the temporary morgue at the nearby nightclub, where reporters counted some 111 bodies lined up in a parking lot yesterday afternoon, many burned beyond recognition.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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