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205 Bodies Recovered in Lima Fire

December 30, 2001

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LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Firefighters dug through the rubble Sunday of a massive blaze sparked by a fireworks explosion in historic downtown Lima just four blocks from Congress, retrieving 205 bodies by late morning.

There was little hope of finding more survivors in damaged buildings, where temperatures during the fire exceeded 1,100 degrees.

One survivor, 31-year-old Jose Fernandez Vega, said many had been trapped.

``The way out was blocked by taxis and people in the streets,″ Vega said from the Arzobispo Loayza hospital, where he was being treated for burns to his arms, face and ears.

``People were trapped in cars and the shopping galleries. Old people, women, children,″ he said. ``I thought I was going to die. Everything was dark.″

Rescue workers retrieved the charred bodies of 122 people, including small children, killed in the streets as a wall of fire swept through four blocks of shops and rundown apartment buildings Saturday night. At least 144 were hospitalized with burns.

Another 83 bodies were discovered as firefighters began digging into the rubble of fire-gutted buildings, bringing the total number of recovered bodies to 205 by 11 a.m., said Luiz Bazan, a Civil Defense official.

He said rescue workers still had to search 60 percent of the burned structures, including at least six multistoried shopping complexes honeycombed with tiny stores.

President Alejandro Toledo cut short a trip to the north of Peru to return to the capital. He declared Sunday and Monday national days of mourning and announced an immediate ban on the production and importation of fireworks. Fireworks are popular in Peru during Christmas and New Year celebrations and are sold on streets through the capital during the season.

It was unclear what caused the initial blast, which ripped through a fireworks shop at about 8 p.m. Flames raced through the three- and four-story buildings as firefighters and volunteers dragged people from the burning structures.

The area was jammed with shoppers and sidewalk vendors selling fireworks, which then also exploded as the fire swept down the streets, trapping many of the victims, who had nowhere to run.

Bodies charred beyond recognition were scattered in the streets and in buildings. Police carried badly burned victims stripped to their underwear in makeshift stretchers made of plastic sheeting.

One firefighter rushed from a burning building with a baby in his hands as people stumbled out into the smoky street, where flames had gutted parked cars.

At one point, a dozen people trapped behind security bars on the second floor of a building pushed their arms through broken windows and screamed to be rescued.

Firefighters pulled 30 people from the building before it was gutted by fire.

Vicente Pineda, a Civil Defense official, said rescue workers had found 122 bodies of people killed just in the streets.

``This is a disaster, a tragedy,″ Larry Lynche, a fire department commander working at the scene said as rescue workers loaded black body bags into trucks parked on a soaked, debris-covered street.

Pineda said 144 people were being treated for burns in several hospitals. One hospital near the site of the blaze said it was treating 35 people with severe burns.

Podesta said most of the bodies were found in the streets and building entrances, and firefighters feared more victims could be buried beneath rubble deeper in the buildings.

Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi said the fire was brought under control shortly before midnight. He said the victims included shopkeepers who had shut themselves inside their stores to deter looters.

Efforts to fight the blaze were hindered at first by low water pressure and by crowds of onlookers who initially blocked fire trucks from the scene.

The fire chief said 440 firefighters were called in from several districts to fight the blaze, about four blocks from Peru’s Congress in the historic downtown section of Lima.

Officials cut electricity to the area to limit the possibility of short circuits adding to the fire, and firefighters used portable generators to power floodlights trained on the blaze.

Twenty municipal water trucks were sent to the scene to support the firefighters. Streets in the area were ankle deep with water and long plumes of smoke rose into the night sky.

Police blocked the site to keep out looters. The fire broke out in an area of aging buildings, some of them from the colonial era, used as shops and apartments.

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