Image: Man works on a coffin
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
A man works on a coffin for children killed during a fire at a daycare center in Hermosillo, Mexico.
updated 6/7/2009 6:22:12 PM ET 2009-06-07T22:22:12

As the day care swiftly filled with smoke, caretakers, neighbors and parents fought to evacuate 142 children — many of them babies and toddlers — through a single working exit until rescue crews arrived.

No fire alarm or sprinkler system had gone off, and one mother said a second door to the day care was bolted shut and nobody could find the key.

Forty children were killed in the devastating fire, which raised doubts about safety standards at more than 1,500 centers where Mexico's government provides low-cost care for at least 200,000 children.

President Felipe Calderon, who visited some of the 33 children hospitalized on Saturday night, pledged to launch a thorough investigation into the cause of a tragedy that has stunned Mexico.

Firefighters, parents and neighbors who rushed to help rescue the children said there was only one working exit — the front door — and that no fire alarm or sprinkler system went off. Several desperate civilians broke huge holes into the outer walls, including one man who rammed his pickup truck against the day care three times.

Passed safety inspection
Yet the ABC day care — a converted warehouse in Hermosillo, capital of the northwestern state of Sonora — passed a safety inspection less than two weeks before the fire Friday, according to Daniel Karam, the director of Mexico's Social Security Institute, which outsourced services to the privately run center.

"How it is possible that they found no problems? Here we have the results," said Karla Gastelum, whose 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old niece were at the day care but escaped unharmed. Four children in her daughter's class died.

The fire initially spread from an adjoining tire and car warehouse to the roof of the day care and sent flames raining down. Fire officials still don't know how it started.

Slideshow: Day care tragedy in Mexico Gastelum, 25, said she was having lunch at her mother-in-law's house about a block from the day care when she saw the fire and raced over. She found her daughter hovering near the door, swept her out of the smoky building and ran back inside to search for her niece. She did not find the younger child but later found out she had also escaped unharmed.

Gastelum said a larger door to the day care was bolted shut, and teachers later told her nobody could find the key. She said she heard no fire alarm and saw no sprinklers go off.

Hermosillo Fire Department Chief Martin Lugo said the building had fire alarms but they did not go off because they were not installed properly, the daily Reforma newspaper reported.

Holes punched through the walls
Another fire department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the fire, said firefighters fought to evacuate children through the only working exit and the huge holes that civilians had punched through the walls.

Similar problems have been blamed for previous disaster in Mexico: In 2000, a fire killed 21 people at a glitzy Mexico City disco that only had one available exit, lacked smoke detectors and did not have enough fire extinguishers. Last year, 12 people died when police raiding a Mexico city nightclub blocked the overcrowded club's lone working exit, creating a deadly stampede. The emergency exits had been blocked.

Only six caretakers were on duty
Although government officials initially indicated only six caretakers were on duty at the day care Friday, Gastelum and other relatives said the day care had about 20 staffers.

Gastelum said the day care practices fire drills, but on the day of the fire, some of the teachers seemed too injured or in shock to go back inside the building after initially rushing out with as many children as they could.

"I'm never sending my daughter to a day care again," she said, adding that she thought the day care should not have been allowed to operate next to a tire and car warehouse.

Karam said documents from the May 26 safety inspection indicated that the day care had fire extinguishers and an emergency exit with signs leading the way to it. He said federal authorities would investigate why the day care had passed the test.

Witnesses being questioned
Sonora state Attorney General Abel Murrieta said he could not comment on whether the fire alarms malfunctioned or why nobody could get through the emergency exit until investigators finish questioning witnesses and rescue officials.

"There were marked emergency exits, but we must now determine whether these emergency exits were adequate," Murrieta said.

Image: Police outside day care center in Mexico
Martin Vallejo  /  AFP - Getty Images
Police guard the area around a day care center where 38 children died in a fire in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Mexico's government provides low-cost day care for almost 230,000 children of working parents at 1,562 centers across the country. Like the ABC day care, many of them are leased to private owners, a system Karam said has proved efficient for decades. After the fire, he said the government's safety standards would be re-evaluated.

Antonio Castro, 22, an employee at a gas station, said he and several colleagues grabbed fire extinguishers and rushed to the day care when they saw the fire from across the street.

He said teachers were rushing from the building, many trying to hold several babies at once while herding older children in front of them. Castro said he brought out four limp toddlers and a baby in a carrier. He, too, said he heard no alarm and saw no sprinklers.

"We fought to save them but there were many we could not help," he said.

Ofelia Quintero, who lives a half-block from the day care and whose grandson was picked up from the center just before the fire erupted, said panicked teachers rushed to her house carrying two or three infants at a time and begging her to look after them.

"Everything seemed very safe. We never imagined this would happen," she said. "I just want to erase everything we lived through."

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Video: Parents grieve victims of Mexico's day care fire

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