Hotspots and Incidents » Disasters, catastrophes

Paraguay supermarket fire disaster leaves 423 dead

Prosecutors believe the owner of the mall ordered to shut exit doors to keep shoppers from fleeing without paying, as the whole place turned into an inferno.
People had to escape from the packed supermarket making holes in the wall.

Survivors of a supermarket blaze in Paraguay that killed on Sunday at least 423 people as other 139 are still missing, confirmed that exit doors were locked as they were desperately trying to escape from the inferno in which the whole place had turned after a gas leakage led to a series of explosions inside the packed mall. Prosecutors, probing allegations that guards locked exit doors to keep shoppers from fleeing without paying for their groceries, asked the courts to keep the supermarket president, his son and four guards in custody pending further investigation.

The drama had begun on Sunday noon in a popular supermarket located in the outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguayan Capital. The place turned into a deadly trap for hundreds of customers that packed the mall at that time, when they could not escape from the fire as all the exit doors were closed.

The owner of the supermarket denied accusations that he had greedily ordered to close the doors, but witnesses confirmed such versions, as well as one of the security guards. "There are several witnesses who saw how they shut the doors to the supermarket and we also confirmed that the emergency exit was welded," Paraguayan Police Chief Humberto Nunez said. Firefighters had found the main doors shut, he added.

Newspaper photographs showed people outside the market trying to break windows to free those asphyxiating inside. Officials said the fire was caused by a gas explosion near the food court.

Despite took place in a middle-class area, the tragedy, the worst accidental disaster in Paraguay’s history, has deeply shocked the impoverished people of this South American nation. Many believe the malicious behaviour of a greedy businessman made the death toll rise to appalling levels.  

President Nicanor Duarte Frutos called for a rapid investigation "so those responsible are punished with the full force of the law". He said a "majority" of the exits appeared locked. "As we ran to the exit, I looked back and saw a ball of fire and the roof fall on several people," said survivor Liz Torres, whose face and hands were completely blackened.

A large number of children, who had accompanied their parents on regular Sunday shopping trips, were among the dead. And many entire families perished together, as well.

Carbonized corpses were flooding since Sunday all Asuncion’s hospitals, as sanitarian aid was sent from Brazil, Spain, Argentina and the United States, to cover Paraguayan needs. The magnitude of the disaster stretched the public services of one of South America's poorest countries. Hospitals were overwhelmed by patients suffering from burns and lung damage.

Paraguay has been signalled as one of the most corrupted countries of South America. Today, country’s justice can probe to its community and the whole world that such fame is groundless and is able to independently try and condemn those liable for the massacre.

Hernan Etchaleco

Photo AP

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