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At least 283 die in Paraguay market fire
Updated: 2004-08-02 12:18

A fire swept through a supermarket packed with shoppers on the outskirts on Paraguayan capital Asuncion Sunday and killed at least 283 people, police said.

More than 100 people were injured in an inferno that officials said was caused by a gas explosion near the food court of the huge Ycua Bolanos supermarket, causing part of the roof to collapse. Flames then engulfed a parking lot underneath.

Police said the toll was expected to rise.

Smoke rises from a supermarket on the outskirts of Paraguay's capital Asuncion, August 1, 2004. Reports say some 283 people have died in the fire which may have been sparked by the explosion of gas canisters. [Reuters]
"There are no words for this," said Orlando Correa, weeping minutes after identifying the corpse of his six-month-old nephew. He searched for his sister among lines of charred bodies in a nearby discotheque that became a makeshift morgue.

Police said they were probing reports shoppers were trapped inside after the supermarket locked its doors to stop people looting or leaving without paying. Firefighters found its main door closed when they arrived, police said, but supermarket officials denied doors had been locked.

Paraguay, a country of 6 million people, was calling it the nation's worst tragedy since a 1930s war with neighboring Bolivia that killed thousands.

In chaotic scenes, rescuers carried bodies, some black from burns and smoke, out of the supermarket in their arms. Firefighters took charred body remains out of the supermarket on stretchers. Television said there were about 700 people in the complex at the time but there was no official estimate.

"There are still bodies inside the building, but firefighters cannot enter because of the ruins and the danger of collapse," Paraguayan police chief Humberto Nunez told Reuters.

Some of the burned bodies were found inside the supermarket hugging each other, including a woman with a small child in her arms, a firefighter told local radio.


Other victims were burned alive in their cars as the blaze swept though a parking lot underneath the supermarket, local television reported.

Dozens of ambulances and fire engines gathered outside the large supermarket, located in a working-class district, where residents of all economic classes do their Sunday shopping. Plumes of black smoke rose from its roof six hours after the blaze.

The supermarket's owner was taken into custody and is being investigated, the prosecutor's office said.

Some survivors were thrown on the backs of open trucks that were driven to hospitals.

One woman wept outside the supermarket, waiting for news of her missing 14-year-old son. "I need information on my son. He's not in any of the hospitals I've contacted," she said.

"It is a moment of huge grief and tension, and we are here to give a voice of support to people who are suffering so much," said President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who rushed with his wife to the scene of the blaze.

The disaster appeared to have stretched the emergency services of one of South America's poorest nations.

Local television showed firefighters trying to plug holes in leaking water hoses with the soles of their boots. Local media called on citizens to donate basic supplies, like gloves, to hospitals.

Private hospitals opened their doors to victims of the blaze but were short of respirators. Neighboring Argentina said it was sending Sunday night a Hercules transport plane with medical supplies to Paraguay.

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