LIMA, Peru — Firefighters today dug through the rubble of a massive blaze sparked by a fireworks explosion in historic downtown Lima, retrieving 235 bodies by the afternoon. Officials were trying to learn what sparked the disaster.
Propelled by exploding fireworks at dozens of sidewalk stands, a wall of fire raced across four blocks Saturday night, trapping holiday shoppers and street vendors who had jammed the narrow streets lined with shops and aging apartment buildings.
There was little hope of finding survivors inside the burned-out buildings, where temperatures exceeded 1,100 degrees at the height of the fire.
Lima Fire Chief Tulio Nicolini initially said the blaze appeared to have started in a warehouse filled with fireworks. But several witnesses said it began when a firecracker exploded in an area spilling over with stands selling fireworks.
Augusto Vega, who was watching out the window of his second-floor apartment, said he saw someone set off a large firecracker in the street below, apparently to test it. It set off other fireworks nearby, he said.
"I had to jump to another roof, and I and a kid I helped to get out got a broken ladder and tried to get out whoever we could.
"Many people stayed behind to try to save their belongings and they died. I tried to get a crippled man out but it was too late," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
One survivor, 31-year-old Jose Fernandez Vega, said many people were 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, screaming, in cars and the shopping galleries. Old people, women, children," he said. "People were burning standing up. They were burning on top of one another.
"I thought I was going to die. The smoke was dark. Then I saw a light — from a rocket. I couldn’t breathe, but I started running over the tops of the taxis. I jumped over three or four. They were burning."
At least 122 people, including small children, were found dead in the streets after the towering blaze raced down the streets, accompanied by the machinegun-like explosions of fireworks from the stands that clogged the sidewalks. Many of the victims were trapped between two walls of fire and had nowhere to run.
Dozens more were discovered as firefighters began digging into the rubble of fire-gutted buildings, bringing the total number of recovered bodies to 235 by mid-afternoon, said Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.
At least 144 more were hospitalized with burns.
Rospigliosi said the victims included shopkeepers who had shut themselves inside their stores to deter looters. Storeowners pulled down metal doors that warped in the heat, trapping them inside.
Luiz Bazan, a civil defense official, said rescue workers still had to search two-thirds of the burned buildings, including at least six multi-story shopping galleries honeycombed with tiny stores.
President Alejandro Toledo cut short a trip to the north of Peru to return to the capital. He declared today and Monday national days of mourning and announced an immediate ban on the production, importation or sale of fireworks.
"We are going to implement drastic measures against those who make them legally, illegally or import them," Toledo said, standing atop a fire truck Sunday after reviewing the fire’s destruction.
"This is one of the most tragic moments I have had to live through as a person and obviously as president," he said.
Fireworks are popular in Peru during Christmas and New Year celebrations and are sold on streets throughout the capital during the holiday season. Today, vendors were out on the streets again in outlying neighborhoods offering a wide range of fireworks.
"I don’t understand the satisfaction that a person gets from exploding a firecracker when there are other ways of receiving the new year with peace," Nicolini, the fire chief, said, standing in a soaked, debris-covered street in the devastated area. "I think it’s time we reflect on more decent ways to celebrate the holiday season."
It has not been illegal to sell fireworks in Peru, but Lima Mayor Alberto Andrade said he had tried to keep them from being sold in dangerous areas like the narrow, crowded downtown streets.
"Regrettably, the merchants marched in the streets and even fought the municipal police when they tried to confiscate fireworks being sold in unauthorized areas," he said.
Firefighters encountered a horrific scene when they rushed to battle the rapidly spreading blaze.
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 arms as people stumbled out into the smoke-filled streets, where flames had gutted parked cars. Passengers died trapped in cars caught in the blocked streets, their bodies burned so badly that it was not possible to tell whether they were men or women.
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.
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.
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