Al Jazeera Posted Thurs., Mar.09, 2017
More teenagers have died from serious burns after a fire at an overcrowded children’s shelter near the capital of Guatemala, raising the death toll to at least 34.
Nineteen victims were found dead at the scene, and 15 more succumbed one by one to their grisly injuries at hospitals in Guatemala City. Several more girls were in serious condition on Thursday, some with severe burns over more than half their bodies.
The fire at the government-run Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home in San Jose Pinula, 10km east of Guatemala City, focused attention on allegations of sexual and other abuse in the facility.
President Jimmy Morales said on national television that he had ordered the dismissal of the shelter’s director.
The blaze was believed to have started during an overnight rebellion in the centre, which holds nearly double the 400 people it was designed to house, against alleged sexual abuse by staff and over poor food and living conditions.
On Wednesday morning someone set fire to mattresses in the girls’ section of the rural campus, authorities said. The blaze quickly spread through two dorms.
Morales said that before the fire, orders had been given to transfer some of the youths to other facilities because of the overcrowding.
“They were serving food to the teenagers when some of them started a fire in a mattress and that’s how the fire was set,” said Abner Paredes, a prosecutor defending children’s rights.
Guatemala has begun a three-day mourning period.
Human rights activists held a vigil on Wednesday night, lighting candles and placing flowers outside the shelter and in the main square in Guatemala City.
“It was a ticking time bomb. This was to be expected,” one of the centre’s former employees, Angel Cardenas, said at the vigil, adding that he had lodged several warnings about conditions inside.
“There has been a small protest in front of the presidential palace in Guatemala City where people were taking burned dolls and laying them out at the steps of the building,” Al Jazeera’s David Mercer, reporting from outside the shelter, said on Thursday.
“There is a lot of public indignation, suffering and confusion that is continuing in Guatemala,” he said, adding that relatives of children at the centre continued arriving at the scene for a second consecutive day on Thursday.
The centre hosts children under the age of 18 who are victims of domestic violence or found living on the street. Sent by court order, the residents are under the responsibility of the social welfare ministry.
The shelter has been the target of multiple complaints alleging abuse. Dozens of children run away in the past year, reportedly to escape ill treatment.