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24 Die After Fiery Performance in Peruvian Disco Triggers a Blaze

July 21, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR and NATALIA TARNAWIECKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LIMA, Peru — A fire-juggling act in a dangerously overcrowded nightclub here went awry early Saturday and ignited a blaze that left at least 24 people dead and dozens more injured.

Most of those who perished were young adults who died of asphyxiation as they tried to flee the flames at Utopia, an unlicensed, recently built club that did not have fire alarms, sprinklers or properly marked emergency exits, Peruvian authorities said.

The fire started about 3 a.m. and spread quickly through the four-story disco in the Surco district of Lima. Among the victims were children of some of Peru's most prominent political families. The fashionable club is adjacent to the capital city's premier shopping center, favored by the elite.

"I started to run. I was one of the first three people out," said one young man, who declined to give his name, as he waited outside a morgue here. "There was so much smoke and I was choking.... There were people jumping from the windows of the second floor."

When the blaze broke out, about 1,000 people were inside Utopia--more than double its capacity of 400, officials said. Peruvian media reported that the dead and injured included relatives and friends of the first and second vice presidents of Peru, Raul Diez Canseco and David Waisman.

Several caged animals that were part of the show--including a lion and a Bengal tiger--died of asphyxiation, authorities said. A horse survived, however.

"This disco doesn't have a construction or an operating permit," said Carlos Dargent, the mayor of Surco, who promised a full investigation. "There has been profound negligence on the part of the people operating the club."

The blaze started when a fire-eating juggler inadvertently set fire to the ceiling, witnesses said. Some witnesses said a performer standing next to the club's disc jockey was breathing columns of fire toward the ceiling when nearby curtains ignited.

Many people at the club thought, for a few moments, that the spreading blaze was part of the show.

"The music was cut, but it seemed like a controlled fire," said Jimena Mariategui, a 25-year-old television reporter who was among the people crowded into the club. "But then the fire got bigger, and people started running."

Some bartenders and patrons tossed beer and other drinks at the spreading flames in a misguided attempt to extinguish the blaze.

President Alejandro Toledo offered his condolences to the families of the victims and promised to punish "with a hard, firm hand ... the irresponsible people who run these types of establishments without fulfilling the law."

*

Special correspondent Tarnawiecki reported from Lima and Times staff writer Tobar from Buenos Aires.

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