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Monday, 31 December, 2001, 21:37 GMT
Peru fire toll 'could top 300'
Fire scene in Lima
Many victims were trapped in their cars
A Peruvian public safety official has said that a blaze sparked by fireworks in the capital, Lima, may have killed over 300 people.


Wreckage must still be removed so we believe there could ultimately be more than 300 dead

Raul Duenas
head of the Lima Municipal Security Board
The head of the Lima Municipal Security Board, Raul Duenas, told the Reuters news agency that at least 282 people were already known to have died and 134 were injured in Saturday's disaster.

Rescuers are still picking through the charred rubble of the shopping centre to recover more bodies but work has been slow because some were trapped in cars caught in the fire and there are fears of structural collapse.

Policeman removes box of fireworks from scene in Lima
Fireworks are banned in some states such as Colombia
City authorities say they have begun identifying the victims of the blaze, but some bodies are burned beyond recognition.

The Peruvian President, Alejandro Toledo, declared national mourning and said he planned to ban the production and sale of fireworks.

He also promised financial assistance to those affected by the fire.

"This is the worst tragedy I have ever had to experience," he said.

Disaster scene

The area in Lima's historic old town had been packed with people ahead of the New Year celebrations when the blaze began on Saturday evening.

Witnesses said that the fire started when a shopkeeper lit a firework as a demonstration for an interested customer on a narrow street outside the shopping centre.


At first it was like an earthquake with a horrible noise - there were lights everywhere and a giant explosion

Marta Alfaro
Eyewitness
A wall of fire swept through four blocks of shops and rundown apartment buildings.

Several hundred fire-fighters eventually brought the blaze under control.

Their efforts were initially hampered by a shortage of water and crowds of onlookers.

They said temperatures could have risen as high as 600C.

Health Minister Luis Solari said some bodies would never even be found because of the high temperatures.

Relatives of victims of a massive fire cry in front the morgue in Lima
Lima's morgue is reported to be full

Fears that damaged buildings might collapse have hampered emergency workers, who are using infra-red cameras to locate bodies, officials said.

Lima city fire chief Tulio Nicolini described the fire as the worst he had seen in his 40-year career.

Sorrow

Pope John Paul II has offered his condolences to Peru, whose population is about 90% Roman Catholic.

Emergency workers remove bodies from the wreckage
Authorities have begun to identify the bodies
He was "deeply pained to learn the terrible news" and was praying for "the eternal rest of those fallen", a Vatican statement said.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was among foreign leaders who also sent condolences.

"This was a terrible tragedy and my thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of the deceased and injured," Mr Blair said.

According to Chief Nicolini, shopkeepers hampered the rescue effort by locking their premises to prevent looting.

Fireworks are popular in Peru during Christmas and New Year celebrations, and are sold on streets throughout the capital during the season.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John McIntyre
"Many of the victims had little chance of escaping"
Peruvian journalist, Carlos Chuman in Lima
"Fireworks are very commonly used to celebrate"
Firework safety campaigner Noel Tobin
"Regulations are so lax"
See also:

31 Dec 01 | Americas
In pictures: Peru firework blaze
30 Dec 01 | Americas
'Too late to do anything'
06 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Peru
Internet links:


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