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Report: 274 dead in Paraguay market fire
Updated: 2004-08-02 08:05

Fire roared through a multilevel supermarket on the outskirts of Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital Sunday, causing at least one floor to collapse, and a television station reported that at least 274 people died and dozens more were injured.

The fire broke out at the Ycua Bolanos supermarket while it was crowded with Sunday midday shoppers, sweeping through the multilevel complex that houses a food court, supermarket, and parking garage.

Smoke rises from a supermarket on the outskirts of Paraguay's capital Asuncion, August 1, 2004. Reports say some 270 people have died in the fire which may have been sparked by the explosion of gas canisters. [Reuters]

Paraguay's Channel 9 reported that 274 bodies had been recovered, citing rescue workers and police accounts. The government had no official toll of deaths and injuries hours after the fire erupted.

Officials were still trying to determine the cause of the fire as the building continued smoldering after nightfall.

President Nicanor Duarte visited the scene.

"This is a moment of great anguish," Duarte said. "I've come here to provide support to the injured and the families of the deceased."

Badly burned bodies, their limbs twisted, were hustled off on stretchers. Public officials appealed for blood donations and medical supplies as hospitals went on emergency staffing throughout the capital of this small, impoverished South American nation.

Rescue workers wearing masks helped remove victims on stretchers as riot police kept back a growing crowd. The victims included a baby and a pregnant woman.

A burn victim is carried out by firefighters after a supermarket fire on the outskirts of Paraguay's capital Asuncion, August 1, 2004. Reports say some 270 people have died in the blaze, which appears to have started from a gas explosion, killing shoppers and workers trapped inside. [Reuters]

Police at hospitals held back sobbing relatives as victims, some covered in foil blankets, were rushed into emergency rooms on stretchers.

Several levels of the multilevel supermarket were covered in soot, including a lower level parking garage where cars were crushed and burned. "I'm looking for my mother. Has anyone seen her?" one unidentified man cried on Paraguayan television, holding up a photograph. "She went shopping this morning and I've checked everywhere and cannot find her."

One woman, her face covered with soot, sobbed as she was carried away on the shoulders of a rescue worker. Firefighters battled through smoke to get inside the market and carry out other victims.

Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto ordered off-duty police and firefighters to the scene and urged hospitals to prepare for the injured. An Associated Press photographer at the scene said hundreds of neighbors living nearby rushed to the scene, helping carry bodies from the building as firefighters held water hoses. Dozens of relatives crowded outside and cried as bodies were pulled out.

Some burned bodies could be seen seated upright in cars in a first-floor parking lot, blackened in the intense heat. A towering column of black smoke billowed from the pink-and-white building lined by palm trees.

Hundreds of rescue workers, bystanders and relatives stood outside the shopping complex, located in an Asuncion suburb. Brown smoke hung in the air for hours afterward.

Public Health Minister Julio Cesar Velazquez told reporters, "I have never seen a disaster like this. The firefighters were taking out, as best as they could, the bodies, the injured and people suffering from smoke inhalation. It's horrible."

District police commander Aristides Cabral said an explosion was reportedly heard before fire swept through the building.

"There was an explosion inside and the heat forced the bottom floor supporting the basement to give way, crushing dozens of people," he said.

Francisco Barrios, a man who was shopping in the store but managed to get out after the fire, described a confusing scene minutes after the fire started with people rushing for the doors.

"There were sparks as if fireworks were going off. The store quickly caught fire and filled with smoke, triggering total confusion," he said, crying. "I lost my wife and kids as I rushed to get out. Now I'm desperately trying to find them."

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