340 killed in inferno
By Chris Millar, Evening Standard

02/08/04 - News and city section

Hundreds of people were left to die inside a blazing supermarket after security staff locked doors to prevent customers from running out without paying, it emerged today.

Initial reports suggested as many as 340 people were killed when the fire tore through a large shopping centre in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion after an industrial propane tank exploded.

Police have charged the store's owner Juan Pio Paiva and his son Daniel with homicide after they allegedly ordered security personnel to lock down every exit. Firefighters had to batter down the locked main entrance to the complex before they could reach hundreds of trapped shoppers.

Some survivors told local newspapers they were unable to open doors as they tried to flee the fire.

The death toll is expected to reach as high as 600. The fire has been called the worst tragedy to strike the country - one of Latin America's poorest - since war broke out against Bolivia in the 1930s.

Firefighters were hampered by the collapse of much of the huge Ycua Bolanos complex and by the dilapidated state of their equipment.

Local television showed firefighters trying to plug holes in leaking water hoses with the soles of their boots.

A chronic shortage of ambulances meant many survivors had to be taken to hospital on the back of pick-up trucks.

Local hospitals, which lack many of the most basic resources, were appealing to citizens to donate simple supplies such as gloves and bandages.

There were chaotic scenes at hospitals across the capital as police held back sobbing relatives desperate to search wards for survivors.

President Nicanor Duarte, who rushed to the scene with his wife,

said it was "a moment of huge grief and tension" for his country. Bodies so far recovered include a baby and a pregnant woman and dozens of children found near the supermarket's toy department.

One survivor, Victor Catan, who lost his wife in the blaze but escaped through the pitch black building with his young son, said: "The doors were shut. I managed to get out with my son, but my wife didn't make it."

Orlando Correa, who lost his sixmonthold nephew in the fire and was searching for his sister's body at the scene, said: "There are no words for this." Police chief Humberto-Nunez said rescue workers had been unable to reach many people inside "because of the ruins and the danger of collapse."

However one firefighter said some of the burned bodies were found inside the supermarket hugging each other.

Other victims were burned alive in their cars as the blaze swept though a parking lot underneath the supermarket.

The blaze broke out yesterday afternoon, one of the supermarket's busiest times, when people from all over the city traditionally headed to the complex to do their weekly shopping.

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2004 Associated New Media