Lima fire, which killed more than 250, made more deadly by street congestion, safety violations

Monday, December 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Jose Fernandez Vega was sure he would die after black smoke clouded his view of a street jammed with unlicensed vendors, shoppers and cars full of screaming people trapped in a fire that killed more than 250.

``People were burning standing up, they were burning on top of one another,'' Vega said Sunday, sitting in a wheelchair at a burn unit, his arms wrapped in bandage. He said he scrambled over three or four burning taxis to escape Peru's most devastating fire on record. ``I have never seen this type of tragedy.''

Witnesses said someone set off a large firecracker in the street Saturday night, apparently to test it, and that it set off other fireworks nearby. Officials estimate temperatures exceeded 1,100 degrees.

At least 122 people, including small children, were found dead in the streets after the towering blaze raced through a four-block area Saturday night, accompanied by the machinegun-like explosions of fireworks from stands that clogged the downtown historic center. Firefighters going through the fire-gutted buildings were finding more bodies.

While the investigation continued, officials agreed that inadequate zoning, street congestion and rampant safety violations contributed to the tragedy.

Mayor Alberto Andrade said the city tried to stop the unauthorized sale of fireworks from street vendors who had returned to the crammed downtown shopping area before Christmas following a five-year absence. Municipal authorities had tried to dislodge the merchants several days ago.

``Unfortunately, the merchants marched and attacked our municipal police to the point that they injured two, putting one in a coma,'' Andrade said. The violence was reminiscent of street battles between unlicensed vendors and police who forced them out in late 1996.

Although Lima's center was designated a U.N. World Heritage site a decade ago, the fire-scarred section would be hard to describe as a tourist destination.

It is a hodgepodge of ugly, modern three- to six-story structures and decaying colonial-era buildings divided into apartments and shops.

Fires linked to fireworks or crowded markets in parts of Lima's downtown are not uncommon.

Peru's leading newspaper El Comercio listed six such fires during the past decade. One fireworks-induced blaze, on Dec. 5, 1991, killed 12 people.

Part of the problem, said Paul Maquet, city planner at Lima's Institute of Urban Development, is a lack of zoning enforcement in the downtown, with families often living perilously close to apartments converted into fireworks warehouses.

``This is an old topic for debate in Lima,'' Maquet said, adding that an ``Urban Rebirth'' program has been in effect, with regulations in place to rebuild and rezone, since 1998. ``Unfortunately there isn't the will to comply with the law,'' he said.

Adherence to safety standards are often sacrificed to cut construction costs, he said. When inspectors do call for improvements, they are often begun, but rarely finished.

As recovery efforts continued Sunday, Civil Defense Col. Ruben Ibanez told The Associated Press that dozens of anguished family members, carrying photographs and dental records, formed long lines to begin identifying victims, many charred beyond recognition.

Ibanez said late Sunday that 256 bodies had been recovered and that recovery efforts would continue through the night. He said that 30 percent of the commercial galleries inside the tenements still needed to be searched. At least 144 people were hospitalized.

Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the governments of Italy and Spain sent Peru their condolences.

Walter Villamil, 46, sweeping the black sludge left over from the fire in front of his house Sunday, pulled what he _ and many others at the scene _ said was the cause of the fire.

``This is a 'chocolate,''' he said, holding up a round, quarter-sized firecracker crudely wrapped in straw paper. Between his thumb and forefinger it looked like a candy with a fuse sticking out.

``Somebody wanted to see if it worked before he bought one.''

President Alejandro Toledo declared Sunday and Monday national days of mourning and announced an immediate ban on the production, importation or sale of fireworks, which are popular in Peru during Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Fireworks vendors, who normally crowd streets throughout the capital during the season, had mostly disappeared from Lima's streets by late Sunday.

``I've put away everything but the sparklers,'' said Aydee Condori, 29, who stood by her cart stocked with New Year's party favors, socks and cheap hair bands in a residential district a few miles from the downtown.

``I'm not selling little firecrackers either,'' she said. ``I'm afraid to sell them now, after what happened.''