21 People Killed, 37 Others Injured in Fire at Guatemalan Youth Center

Members of the Guatemalan Red Cross arrive at the children's shelter Virgen de la Asuncion after a fire at the facility killed at least 19 people, in San Jose Pinula on March 8, 2017. (Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-one people — mostly teenage girls — were killed after a fire tore through a youth home in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala, on Wednesday.

The blaze started when some of the youths in the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home set fire to a mattress on their way to breakfast, said Abner David Paredes Cruz, the attorney for Guatemala’s Human Rights office.

Nineteen female residents of the home — all between the ages of 13 and 17 — were killed in the blaze, the country’s National Civil Police told CNN en Espanol.

Video from the scene showed sobbing family members outside the home, banging on the doors, looking for loved ones.

A cook at the home was also killed, along with one other person. It wasn’t immediately clear if the 21st victim was a resident of the youth home.

The fire, which began around 9 a.m. injured 37 other minors, according to the Public Ministry; the National Civil Police said 11 of the victims were seriously injured.

Support

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales pledged his support to the families of the victims and to those who had been injured, and said the director of the home has been fired. An investigation into the center has also been ordered.

Guatemala’s attorney general, Thelma Aldana, had already threatened to shut down the home late last year when close to 40 teens escaped.

General prosecutor Anabella Morfin said her office was working on “deinstitutionalizing” the center, by reducing the number of treated youths from 720 to 580.

Care home

The facility houses minors who have suffered physical, psychological and sexual violence, or who have mild disabilities. Some residents have been abandoned, addicted to drugs, or been victims of trafficking, the Guatemalan government said.

Human rights groups criticized the home in the past, saying it was overcrowded and was lacking in specialized care for residents.

“It’s a terrible event, what happened, and more terrible that this could be avoided,” Morfín said.

‘Just unimaginable’

Guatemala’s volunteer fire brigade posted a photo on social media that showed charred bodies partially covered with blankets spread across the floor.

Some parents gathered at a morgue in Guatemala City.

“I don’t know how this came to pass but this is just unimaginable … that my daughter would be incinerated. But I have faith in God that there will be justice,” Dacia Marcela Ramirez Soza told CNN.

Sobbing, she said she was told at the youth home that her daughter died in the fire. She identified her body at the morgue.

“It’s just not possible, this tragedy, and the violation of human rights … it’s sad,” Ramirez Soza said.

Other parents feared their children were among the dead.

“I am hurting as a mother because she does not deserve this. I gave her advice. I hope that it is not her,” Carolina Juarez, whose daughter was in the home, told AFP.

Morfín said her office “has the duty to protect and represent children and adolescent and those vulnerable and that lack representation.”

“We cannot recover those lives but we can analyze the system, make it transparent,” Secretary of Welfare Carlos Rodas said.

“That it is not about egos, it is not about personalities,” he added. “These are boys and girls, teenagers.”

Rodas said his office will pay for the funeral services.