A fire swept through a two-story private rehabilitation center for addicts in a poor part of Peru's capital Saturday, killing 27 people and critically injuring five as firefighters punched holes through walls to rescue residents locked inside.
The “Christ is Love” center for drug and alcohol addicts was unlicensed and overcrowded and its residents were apparently kept inside “like prisoners,” Health Minister Alberto Tejada told The Associated Press.
Authorities said 26 people died at the scene, and prosecutors spokesman Raul Sanchez said Saturday night that one of six men hospitalized in critical condition died later.
Peru's fire chief, Antonio Zavala, said most of the victims died of asphyxiation. All the victims appeared to be male.
The local police chief, Clever Zegarra, said the cause of the 9 a.m. fire was under investigation.
“There has been talk of the burning of an object, of a mattress, but also of a fight that resulted in a fire. All of this is speculation,” he told the AP. “I've been here at the scene from morning to evening but for the moment the exact cause of the fire is not known.”
One resident of the center on a narrow dead-end street in Lima's teeming San Juan de Lurigancho district said he was eating breakfast on the second floor of the center when he saw flames coming from the first floor, where the blaze apparently began.
Gianfranco Huerta told local RPP news radio station that he leaped from a window to safety.
“The doors were locked; there was no way to get out,” he told the station.
AP journalists at scene said all the windows of the building they were able to see were barred. Journalists were not allowed inside as police cordoned off the block. By early afternoon, all the dead had been removed from the center.
Most of the bodies seen by reporters were shirtless, their faces blackened. Many were also shoeless.
“This rehabilitation center wasn't authorized. It was a house that they had taken over … for patients with addictions and they had the habit of leaving people locked up with no medical supervision,” Tejada, the health minister, said.
Authorities said they did not know how many people were inside the center at the time of the fire. They said they were looking for the center's owners and staff, some of whom apparently fled the scene.
The local police chief, Zegarra, identified the owner as Raul Garcia.
Zoila Chea, an aunt of one victim, said families paid Garcia $37 to treat an addicted relative and $15 a week thereafter.
She said that neighbors had constantly complained about the center and that it had been closed twice by authorities.
Chea, 45, said relatives were prohibited from seeing interned patients during the first three months of treatment, which she added consisted mainly of reading the Bible.
Her nephew, Luis Chea, was at the center for a month, she said.
Zavala, the national fire chief, said the blaze was of “Dantesque proportions.” Firefighters had to punch a hole through a wall with an adjoining building to help people trapped inside the rehabilitation center.
“We've had to use electric saws to cut through the metal bars of the doors to be able to work,” Zavala said.
Relatives of residents of the center gathered near the building weeping and seeking word of their loved ones. As the day wore on, nearby sidewalks filled with relatives mourning and trying to console one another.
One of them was Maria Benitez, aunt of 18-year-old Carlos Benitez, who she said was being treated at the center.
“I want to know if he is OK or not,” she told ATV television.
Associated Press journalists Mauricio Munoz, Cesar Barreto and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.