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Mexico probes day care fire, death toll hits 44

/ Source: The Associated Press

A short circuit or overheating in an air conditioning system in an adjacent warehouse may have caused a fire that killed 44 young children in a day care center in northern Mexico, the state's attorney general said Monday.

The Sonora state health department reported that one child died Sunday from injuries suffered in the Friday blaze at the ABC day care in Hermosillo, and 2-year-old girl died Monday shortly before she was to board a flight to California for treatment.

More than 30 children and adults with severe burns and smoke inhalation were being treated in hospitals in Mexico and the United States.

Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours said authorities have called in the day care center's owners, employees and others for questioning.

"No one is above the law," Bours told Televisa network. "We are going to look for the causes, find those responsible and nothing will stop us. The ... children who have died and their parents deserve at least that."

Sonora state attorney general Abel Murrieta said the fire may have been started by overheating or a short circuit at an air-conditioning vent in a neighboring car and tire warehouse.

"That's the most convincing theory investigators have found," Murrieta told a news conference in Hermosillo.

No alarm sounded
Investigators are combing through documents authorizing the operation of the day care, and trying to determine why the fire swept so quickly through the center.

The private facility — leased by the government to provide people low-cost care — cared for 173 children in a converted warehouse in an industrial area, surrounded by mechanic shops and across from a gas station, Bours said, and about 50 children had left before the fire started. Many were taking naps at the time of the fire.

No fire alarm or sprinkler system went off, according to witnesses. One mother said there was only one exit and that a second door to the day care was bolted shut and nobody could find the key. Rescuers knocked through walls to get to the children, including one man who rammed his pickup truck against the day care three times.

Bours said the smoke seeped in through a space between the center's roof and ceiling panels. Since the fire alarms were attached to the ceiling panels, they didn't detect the smoke wafting above and didn't go off.

Daniel Karam, the director of Mexico's Social Security Institute, which outsourced services to the privately run center, 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.

Standards being reviewed
Three of the most seriously injured children were taken to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Northern California. Doctors there have begun what they say will be months of treatment.

All three were expected to undergo a series of operations to receive skin grafts.

The fire 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 and officials say all are being re-evaluated.

The National Human Rights Commission said Monday it has started an investigation to determine if there was negligence on part of the authorities.