Tuesday 22 August 2017

Some 37 girls buried after being killed in fire at overcrowded youth shelter

Friends and family react during the funeral of Madelin Patricia Hernandez, a victim of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children shelter, at the cemetery in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Saul Martinez
Friends and family react during the funeral of Madelin Patricia Hernandez, a victim of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children shelter, at the cemetery in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Saul Martinez
Friends and family react during the funeral of Madelin Patricia Hernandez, a victim of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children shelter, at the cemetery in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Saul Martinez
People carry the coffin containing the remains of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at the Guatemala City's cemetery (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Relatives carry the coffin containing the remains of 17-year-old Siona Hernandez Garcia, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at the Guatemala City's cemetery (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

Sonia Perez and Jose Lopez in Guatemala City

Families have buried some of the 37 girls killed in a fire at an overcrowded government-run youth shelter in Guatemala as authorities worked to determine exactly what happened.

The death toll mounted as girls succumbed to burns from Wednesday's disaster, which officials said began when mattresses were set on fire during a protest by the shelter's residents.

Questions remained over why someone among the girls set the blaze and whether doors remained locked as the girls pleaded for their lives.

Parents and relatives said many of the young people at the shelter, which had both female and male residents, had been sent there because of abuse, poverty or family problems. Others were ordered there by judges after run-ins with police, officials said.

A casket holding 16-year-old Siona Hernandez Garcia was slipped into a niche at a Guatemala City cemetery on Friday and street musicians played hymns as workers bricked up the space.

Maria Garcia, Siona's mother, demanded justice.

"Guatemala is full of violence," she said. "They are raping and killing the poor's girls."

At the entrance to Roosevelt Hospital, Claudia Tecun broke down in tears talking about her daughter Noemi Tecun Munoz, 17, who was being treated inside for burns over 70% of her body.

"The doctors say there isn't much hope she will live," she said.

"I heard on the news that my daughter was one of the girls who set the fire at the shelter; that's not true. My daughter wouldn't try to take her own life."

That was a reference to widespread reports, including from other victims' relatives, that some of the girls set mattresses on fire to protest their apprehension and return to the facility after fleeing the previous night because of mistreatment, bad food and fears of rape.

San Juan de Dios Hospital officials said another girl had succumbed to her wounds, bringing the death toll to 37, with 19 dying at the scene and 18 others later while being treated at hospitals.

Read more: 'Gender based violence remains a pervasive and dangerous feature of our societies'

Hospital director Carlos Soto said that visiting doctors evaluating the burn victims had offered to take eight of them to Galveston, Texas, for specialised burn treatment. Mr Soto said the government had obtained humanitarian visas for the children from US officials, but authorities were awaiting permission from the parents.

Geovany Castillo said his 15-year-old daughter Kimberly suffered burns on her face, arms and hands but survived. She was in a locked area where girls who took part in the escape attempt had been placed, he said.

"My daughter said the area was locked and that several girls broke down a door, and she survived because she put a wet sheet over herself," Mr Castillo said.

"She said the girls told her that they had been raped and in protest they escaped, and that later, to protest, to get attention, they set fire to the mattresses," he said.

As grieving families began receiving the bodies of girls whose remains had been identified, others were still searching for their children.

Vianney Clareth Hernandez was waiting outside a morgue with a photo of her daughter, Ashley. The 14-year-old was at the shelter but her mother said she had not found the girl at any of the local hospitals.

"It was a crime they didn't open the doors, they didn't do anything to get the girls out, even though they were screaming," she said.

While many people believed reports that the doors at the overcrowded shelter were kept locked even as the fires spread, authorities said the circumstances were still under investigation.

But the exact sequence of events may never be known. Mr Castillo said his daughter Kimberly had testified to police that the girls who started the fire were among those who died in the blaze.

The few surviving girls at the hospital were put under police guard on Friday for their own protection as witnesses.

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