SAN JOSÉ PINULA, Guatemala – The death toll in a fire at a troubled youth shelter in Guatemala rose to 31 Thursday as a dozen more girls died at hospitals overnight and details began to emerge of a tragedy sparked by angry, neglected youths seeking to flee terrible conditions.
Nineteen girls were found burned to death or dead of smoke inhalation in the rubble of a dormitory fire fueled by foam mattresses Wednesday. Twelve of the 39 residents injured later died at hospitals, said Adrian Chávez, the assistant health minister.
Of the 27 girls still hospitalized Thursday, 10 were had life-threatening burn injuries, often covering more than 50 percent of their bodies.
The inferno grew out of a mass escape attempt. Dozens of teens held in the overcrowded state-run shelter on the outskirts of Guatemala’s capital flooded through the gates Tuesday evening, most only to be caught and locked in their dorms.
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.
It was unclear who set the fire or why — perhaps as a protest to get the doors opened, or to cover another escape attempt, or in hopes of starting a riot. Officials said the sequence of events was still under investigation.
But the office of President Jimmy Morales issued a statement blaming courts for ignoring an earlier request by his administration to transfer youthful offenders to other facilities, suggesting the deaths could have been avoided if such youths had not been present.
“Before the fire, the government had asked the appropriate authorities to immediately transfer youthful offenders to other detention centers, to avoid greater consequences,” the president’s office wrote. “The government regrets the fact that those authorities did not heed that request in an opportune way, something which could have prevented the tragedy.”
The president declared three days of national mourning.
One survivor said male residents had apparently been able to enter at least some of the girls’ dormitories before the fire.
The 15-year-old girl, who asked that her name not be used, was being taken to a hospital in Guatemala City for treatment of minor injuries. She said she and other adolescent girls had taken refuge on a roof for fear of being attacked by male residents and saw the fire break out in a nearby building.
“I saw the smoke in the place,” she said. “It smelled like flesh.”
Distraught parents waited outside hospitals and the shelter, which accepted abused, neglected or homeless children as well as those who had completed sentences at juvenile detention centers.
Parents begging for information scribbled their children’s names on pieces of paper to pass to shelter staff, and hunted for word at two local hospitals and the morgue.
Authorities said DNA tests might be necessary for some remains. At Roosevelt Hospital, Dr. Marco Antonio Barrientos asked parents waiting outside for information to come back with photographs, dental records and details about tattoos or other distinctive features.
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 at the hospitals and the morgue, but got no information. She showed the photo to workers at one hospital, but they said they had five girls who were completely bandaged so they could not be sure.
“They only took her from me to burn her,” Estrada said. “I blame the state for what has happened.”
Late Wednesday at the morgue, Patricia Ramírez said her 15-year-old granddaughter Achly Gabriela Méndez Ramírez was one of the dead. She said her daughter, the girl’s mother, had identified Achly’s burned body at the shelter earlier in the day, but authorities said they would not release her body until there was a DNA test.
Ramírez said the family was from a region east of the capital in Jutiapa department and Achly had been at the home for one year.
Ambulances hurried to the hospitals throughout the morning carrying the injured, some partially naked, burned bright pink with large flaps of skin hanging from their bodies.
Surrounded by trees and a 30-foot wall, the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home was built to hold 500 young residents, but at the time of the fire housed at least 800.
Complaints about abuse and living conditions at the shelter have been frequent.
Jorge de León, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor, said in a statement that at least 102 children had been located after escaping from the shelter but more had managed to flee. He said younger children fled the shelter because they were being abused by older residents.
“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.”
In 2013, a 14-year-old girl was murdered at the facility. Investigators said the girl was strangled by one of the other residents.
SONIA PEREZ D