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Mexico seeks to pinpoint cause of deadly fire at day-care center

Investigators are reportedly examining whether the blaze in Hermosillo was ignited by an electrical short-circuit in an automobile warehouse next door. The fire killed at least 31 children.

June 07, 2009|Diana Barrios and Ken Ellingwood | Barrios is a special correspondent. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau and Times staff writer Ruben Vives in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

HERMOSILLO, MEXICO, AND MEXICO CITY — Rescuers fought smoke and tore at walls to get to those trapped inside. One desperate father used his pickup as a battering ram. Many of the victims were too tiny to call for help.

At least 38 children would die.

The northern Mexican city of Hermosillo was plunged into grief and shock Saturday as investigators sought to pinpoint what sparked a swiftly moving fire at a crowded day-care center a day earlier.

Officials said 142 children were in the center when the fire broke out. They ranged in age from 3 months to 4 years, according to an incomplete roll provided by authorities in Sonora, a border state across from Arizona.

On Saturday, cribs, baby carriers and blankets littered the ground outside the center. In the surrounding neighborhood, known as Y Griega, streets were nearly empty, the air thick with stunned grief. Residents placed votive candles and flower arrangements on the ground outside the yellow police tape that ringed the building.

An aide at the preschool described the fire as "explosive," and said rescuers were able to pull only a few of the children to safety.

"We began to smell smoke and the alarm went off," Maria Adriana Gasca Sandoval said in a video interview on the website of the Hermosillo newspaper El Imparcial. "But it was explosive and there was no chance to get more children out."

More than 40 children were hospitalized and at least six adults were being treated, although none were seriously injured.

A 3-year-old with burns to 80% of her body was taken Saturday to Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California in Sacramento, accompanied by a parent.

"That's very critical in that age group," Dr. Tina Palmieri, the hospital's assistant chief of burns, told reporters.

The girl will need "a vast array of very complex services" and her recovery will take months, the doctor said.

Palmieri couldn't say whether more children would come to the hospital.

Other children would continue to be treated in hospitals in Hermosillo or sent to a hospital burn unit in Guadalajara, in west-central Mexico, officials said.

The scene Friday was chaotic, as rescuers sought to smash through walls to get inside the ABC day-care center, a converted warehouse.

The fire raced through the two-story structure, which sits in a middle- and working-class neighborhood. Initial reports said the fire appeared to have begun in a neighboring tire shop, but the shop's owner denied that it had started there. Investigators reportedly were looking into whether the blaze was ignited in a warehouse next door where state treasury officials store automobiles.

In a news conference, Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours said it was clear that the fire started outside the preschool, but investigators had not determined the source.

"This is an enormous, enormous tragedy," Bours said.

The deaths cast a pall over the city of 1 million. Bours and other officials rushed back from a meeting in Arizona after getting news of the fire.

In a gesture of sympathy, political parties said they would suspend campaigning for July 5 gubernatorial and congressional elections. Parents staked out hospitals and the state attorney general's office for word on their children.

President Felipe Calderon dispatched the head of the Mexican Social Security Institute and 15 doctors with experience in medical reconstruction. And he ordered the country's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, to launch an investigation.

The preschool was privately run but licensed by the Social Security Institute, which runs 1,562 facilities nationwide for 228,000 children.

The agency's director, Daniel Karam, said the Hermosillo center passed an inspection May 26. He said it was equipped with fire extinguishers and had an emergency exit.

The tragedy resonated across Mexico, where family is revered and children doted upon.

"Our thoughts, actions and prayers are with the families that are going through this terrible situation," Calderon said during an event in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo. "As a Mexican, as a father, as president, I am truly saddened and filled with dismay since learning of this tragedy."

Later in the day, he traveled to Hermosillo to tour hospitals and visit the injured.

Jose Angel Duarte, a gas station worker who said he and six colleagues joined the rescue effort, described hellish desperation.

"There was a lot of chaos -- shouting, children crying. It was something terrible," Duarte said.

He said the helpers returned to the gas station to get fire extinguishers and then tried vainly to put out the blaze. Arriving firefighters joined the effort.

"I only pulled out children who were fine, but I saw the firefighters taking out burned children and putting them on the ground, on top of blankets," Duarte said. "I really couldn't sleep last night just remembering what had happened."

Officials said all but one of the dead had been identified.

By late Saturday, families were beginning to bid farewell. Sounds of weeping filled the air at one funeral home where the bodies of seven of the children rested.

Alma Estrada, who works at an industrial park near the day-care center, said her 3-year-old nephew and the children of two co-workers were among the dead.

"It's as if we were living a nightmare," she said.

--

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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