Guatemala City: At least 22 people were found dead Wednesday at the scene of a fire that broke out in a troubled orphanage in Guatemala.
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 injuring dozens, most with second- and third-degree burns.
The overcrowded state-run shelter, Virgen de Asuncion, houses children up to age 18 who are referred there mostly for cases of domestic violence. It is located on the outskirts of Guatemala’s capital city in San Jose Pinula.
Distraught parents scribbled their children’s names on pieces of paper to pass to shelter staff begging for information. They went to the two local hospitals and the morgue.
“I saw the smoke in the place. It smelled like flesh,” a 15-year-old girl who was being treated for minor injuries at one hospital said.
Piedad Estrada, a street vendor, arrived at the hospital with a photograph of her 16-year-old daughter. She said the teen was pregnant and had been at the shelter for nine days because she ran away from home.
Estrada searched hospitals and the morgue, but got no information.
“They only took her from me to burn her,” Estrada said. “I blame the state for what has happened.”
The fire followed a 15-hour riot in which hundreds protested their living conditions and demanded to be transferred, according to Guatemalan papers.
The orphanage has been criticized for overcrowding, alleged abuse and escapes in the past.
Currently the building houses at least 800, despite having a capacity for 500.
Hours after the fire, the government in a statement expressed its condolences to the victims’ families and promised a thorough investigation. It said that before the incident it had asked that the shelter transfer youths with criminal histories who were there on judges’ orders to other facilities, but that had not happened. It said the director had been fired.
Jorge de Leon, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor, said in a statement that at least 102 children had been located after escaping from the shelter and more had managed to flee. De Leon said younger children fled the shelter because they were being abused by the elder children.
“According to what they say, the bigger kids have control and they attack them constantly,” de Leon wrote. “They also complain that food is scarce and of poor quality.”
He called on authorities “to evaluate whether it is appropriate to have these different groups concentrated in one place.”