A fire tore through a home for abused teenagers and children in Guatemala, killing at least 19 girls on Wednesday after some residents set mattresses ablaze following an overnight attempt to escape from the overcrowded center, police said.
A crowd of relatives, some wailing with grief, gathered outside the government-run Virgen de Asuncion home for youth up to 18 years of age, in San Jose Pinula, 25 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of the capital Guatemala City.
Nery Ramos, head of Guatemala's national police, said at the scene that 19 people, all girls, were confirmed dead. Local hospitals reported at least 40 others being treated for burns.
|Family members react as they wait for news of their loved ones after a fire broke at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Saul Martinez
The blaze started when a group of young people who had been isolated by authorities after a riot and an escape attempt at the center on Tuesday night set fire to mattresses, Ramos said.
Authorities were investigating whether those who started the blaze were the same ones who tried to escape, he added.
"What happened is extremely serious, and even more so for the fact that it could have been avoided," Anabella Morfin, Guatemala's solicitor general told a news conference. "This should never have happened."
Burnt bodies partially covered in blankets were strewn across the floor of a blackened room in the home, pictures posted to Twitter by the firefighters showed.
President Jimmy Morales declared three days of national mourning, and the government criticized conditions at the home.
Mayra Veliz, secretary general of the attorney general's office, pledged a transparent investigation into the cause of the blaze. She said that a group of disabled girls had been bussed to another shelter as detectives scoured the site.
Plagued by Latin America's worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha which often prey on minors, Guatemala can be a traumatic place to grow up. Conditions in the Central American nation's public institutions are often dismal with widespread overcrowding.