LIMA, Peru – Firefighters on Sunday dug through the rubble of a massive blaze sparked by a fireworks explosion in historic downtown Lima, retrieving 256 bodies by the afternoon. At least 144 more were hospitalized with burns.
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. The body count mounted through the day as firefighters made their way into cavernous tenements to search through debris.
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.
At least 122 people, including small children, were found dead in the streets after the towering blaze raced down the streets, accompanied by the machine-gunlike 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.
Fireworks are popular in Peru during Christmas and New Year celebrations and are sold on streets throughout the capital during the holiday season.
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