31 kids die in daycare fire

June 6, 2009 10:17:40 AM PDT
A fast-moving fire killed 31 children in a day care center in northern Mexico despite desperate attempts of firefighters who punched through the walls and fought their way through flames to rescue babies, toddlers and others trapped inside. The building had only one exit, according to the fire department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the fire. He said firefighters pulled children through the only door and through large holes that a civilian knocked into the walls before rescue crews arrived.

Noe Velasquez, an employee at a nearby auto parts store who helped pull out five toddlers, said the father of one of the children rammed his pickup truck through a wall.

"I didn't sleep last night. I've never gone through anything like that in all my life," he said Saturday.

At least 25 children and five employees were hospitalized after Friday's fire in ABC day care in the city of Hermosillo, said Jose Larrinaga, a spokesman for investigators in the state of Sonora, which borders Arizona. Some had third-degree burns, an Hermosillo fire department official said.

There were about 100 children in the day care at the time, with ages ranging from six months to 5 years, said Guadalupe Ayala, coordinator of Red Cross rescue workers.

Velasquez said he and several other people rushed to the day care when they saw smoke. Teachers already had lined up some of the children outside but the very smallest were trapped, some of them in their cribs. Velasquez said he pulled out limp toddlers without knowing if they were dead or alive.

Authorities have identified 27 of the 31 children killed, according to a Sonora government statement Saturday.

The fire may have started at a neighboring tire and car warehouse, state officials said. The blaze eventually spread to the roof of the day care, sending flames raining down on the children, the fire department official said.

Firefighters took two hours to control the blaze, the cause of which was still unconfirmed. Most the victims died from smoke inhalation.

Sobbing parents flooded hospitals, desperate for news about their children.

Police trucks on Saturday cordoned off the block surrounding the salmon-and-blue day care, a cavernous building with a few, small windows mounted high up on the walls.

Forensic investigators gathered material, searching for clues to what started the blaze.

Photographs showed the sidewalk outside the day care strewn with upturned, slightly blackened baby seats and cribs in the immediate aftermath of the blaze. Cribs also could been seen through huge holes punched through the walls.

The Mexican government sent a team of 15 burn specialists, three air ambulances, and other medical equipment, President Felipe Calderon said. He ordered an investigation by Mexico's attorney general.

Mexico's Social Security Institute outsourced services to the privately run day care.

Building safety violations have been blamed for previous disasters in Mexico.

In 2000, a fire killed 21 people at a glitzy Mexico City disco that only had one available exit, lacked smoke detectors and did not have enough fire extinguishers. Many of the dead were found near the club's emergency exit, which was locked with a chain. More than 140 nightclubs were closed for code violations after that fire.

Last year, 12 people died a botched police raid at another Mexico City nightclub. Officers blocked the overcrowded club's lone working exit, creating a deadly stampede in which nine patrons and three police died in the rush to get out. The emergency exits had been blocked.