Fire kills 14 in Peru drug rehab center: firefighters

Posted at 05/06/2012 2:32 PM | Updated as of 05/06/2012 2:32 PM

LIMA - Fire swept through a drug rehabilitation center early Saturday, killing 14 people who were unable to escape the inferno because windows were barred and doors were locked, firefighters said.

Only one person survived the blaze, said Lima fire department spokeswoman Elena Cabello.

The disaster comes just three months after 29 people were killed in a fire at another drug rehabilitation center in Lima.

The latest fire broke in the early morning hours at the Sacred Heart of Jesus rehabilitation center, a two-story house in the town of Chosica, in the foothills of the Andes 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of the capital.

"The doors were locked and the windows on the second floor had bars on them. It wasn't possible for people to get out," said Fernando Campos, head of the firefighters on the scene.

He said 13 bodies were found on the second floor of the building and one on the first floor. The cause of the fire was unknown.

Neighbors reported hearing what they thought was fighting among the rehab center residents before the fire broke out.

"We almost always heard screams at night but then they calm down," a woman told the local press.

"But this time, it seemed like they were fighting and the screaming was very loud, until a guard came out of the house and asked for the fire department to be called because there was a fire."

The sole blaze survivor, Luis Zeballo, told reporters he smelled smoke, felt heat from the flames, and quickly fled the building.

"I heard them calling for help when I was already downstairs," he said.

The rehabilitation center residents lived in a dormitory on the second floor of a two-story home. The ground floor was used for offices and medical exam rooms.

Investigators said the fire may have broken out on the ground floor, blocking the path of those on the second floor.

Meanwhile, relatives of the victims massed outside a fenced area around the building, weeping and begging to be let in to identify their loved ones.

Women outside wailed every time firefighters brought out a body bag and loaded it into a vehicle to be driven to the morgue.

When they were finished, prosecutor Ana Maria Cuba invited relatives of the victims into the house, where she spoke to them about when they would be allowed to identify the remains.

Chosica Mayor Luis Bueno told reporters that inspectors had visited the center center several months earlier and had found nothing unusual.

But he said it was up to the central government to better regulate the country's many private, often unlicensed drug rehabilitation centers.

Drug prevention group CEDRO says there are about 260 such centers around the country, but only 20 percent are licensed and have personnel trained to deal with alcoholics and drug addicts.

In this South American nation of almost 30 million there are some 60,000-100,000 people with drug addiction problems, said CEDRO head Milton Rojas.

Rojas spoke after January 28 fire in a busy, poor area of Lima that killing at least 27 people and injured several others trapped behind the locked iron doors at the "Christ is Love" center.

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