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35 Girls Killed in Guatemala Fire May Have Been Locked In

Relatives waited Thursday at a morgue in Guatemala City to learn the names of girls who died in the blaze at the children’s home. CreditJohan Ordonez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This article was originally published on New York Times website on March 9,2017

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemalan human rights officials said Thursday that they believe that the 35 girls who were killed when a fire swept through a dormitory at a children’s home had been unable to escape because they were locked inside.

As new questions arose over the fire at the Virgen de la Asunción home, evidence emerged that the girls had been confined to a small room after they had escaped from the residence and been recaptured by the police.

“There were 52 girls in that room, and if someone locked the doors, the consequences are serious,” said Hilda Morales, the adjunct prosecutor for human rights.

The locked doors were still a “presumption” that had to be confirmed by Guatemala’s attorney general, Ms. Morales added. “The responsibility lies with the staff, the director and the secretary” for social welfare.

Mayra Veliz, general secretary of the attorney general’s office, said a team of 16 prosecutors would handle the investigation.

The Health Ministry said 23 girls remained hospitalized. Officials began to transfer other children and adolescents who lived in the home to other facilities. The children, some of them orphans, came from poor families and many have suffered abuse.

But questions were also raised about the response of firefighters and the police. Speaking to a congressional panel on Thursday, police officials and fire officials blamed each other for a 40-minute delay in reaching the victims.

Legislators also heard that only three of the 64 security cameras were working in the home, which housed some 750 children in space meant for 500.

The fire early Wednesday has led to an outpouring of grief and anger as evidence of negligence at the home mounted.

Officials have cited troubles at the home since 2013. Last October, a prosecutor recommended shutting down the home.

Eric Rosenthal, the executive director of Disability Rights International in Washington, said that officials from the human rights prosecutor’s office believed that the girls had been locked in as punishment for the protest. It is still unclear how the fire started, he said.

Mr. Rosenthal said he was particularly concerned about the fate of residents with disabilities. “There is a tendency to dump them in other places to get rid of them,” he said.

Nic Wirtz reported from Guatemala City, and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City.

(c) New York Times 2017

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