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Paraguay fire toll at 464; store owner charged

A judge filed involuntary manslaughter charges Tuesday against the owner of a Paraguayan supermarket that caught fire, killing more than 450 weekend shoppers, local media reported.
Larmina Gimenez, right, holds up pictures of her sister, brother-in-law and cousin, who are missing after Sunday’s fire in Asuncion. Two law students helping her search hold up other photos.Jorge Saenz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge filed involuntary manslaughter charges Tuesday against the owner of a supermarket that caught fire, killing hundreds of weekend shoppers, local media reported.

The decision by Judge Pedro Dario Portillo, broadcast on Channel 13 television, came after authorities said a security guard told them that the doors were ordered locked to prevent looting after the blaze broke out Sunday.

Judicial officials had no immediate comment on the indictment of supermarket owner Juan Pio Paiva, who Channel 13 said had been moved to the Tacumbu penitentiary just west of Asuncion, the capital.

Earlier Tuesday, authorities said the toll had soared to 464 dead, while 409 people remained in hospitals with burns and other injuries.

Dozens of families were still searching for lost loved ones as investigators questioned the store’s two owners, a manager and four security guards over whether the doors had been ordered locked to stop people from leaving without paying — allegedly trapping shoppers inside.

Gas canister suspected
The blaze, Paraguay’s worst disaster in decades, broke out around midday Sunday at the three-story Ycua Bolanos supermarket in a suburb of Asuncion. Flames quickly spread through the supermarket, its food court and a parking garage. Officials say they are checking reports that an exploding gas canister could have started the flames.

Prosecutor Edgar Sanchez, who is leading the investigation, said a security guard told authorities that at the outset of the fire he received orders over a radio to lock the doors to prevent theft.

Sanchez said the guard did not know who gave the order. “He couldn’t identify the voice that spoke to him over the radio,” Sanchez added.

Pio Paiva and his son, the store’s owners, had been taken into custody Monday along with a business associate and four security guards. Pio Paiva has dismissed claims the doors were deliberately locked.

As funerals and burials were held across the capital, the mood remained edgy. Authorities evacuated a second Asuncion supermarket Tuesday after reports of a gas leak, but there were no reports of injuries, and there was no fire.

Search for victims continues
Three days after the tragedy, firefighters and rescuers continued searching for victims in the rose-colored building, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape and guarded by rifle-carrying soldiers.

Nearby, some families of the victims were still frantically trying to find the bodies of relatives missing and believed dead.

Dozens of family members gathered to look over badly burned bodies hoping to identify loved ones. Others held up pictures of family members, hoping rescue workers might recognize them.

Forensic experts urged Paraguayans to bring dental records and X-rays to help identify victims. Others were called on to give blood tests.

“I’m looking for my mother! Where is she?” a sobbing Carlos Montiel shouted amid the crowd. Unable to identify her among the bodies, he frantically yelled a description of her: “She’s tall, brown and has black hair.

“I’ve looked everywhere, and nobody knows anything about her,” he said.

One woman, Blanca Valinotti, said she believed her 25-year-old daughter, Nidia, had died in the blaze but had not seen her name on a list of the dead circulated by authorities.

“I’ve given up all hope,” she said. “I know she’s dead, but at least I want to find the body. I need to know what happened to her.”

Dozens of volunteer psychologists circulated among the crowd hoping to console grief-stricken relatives.

“What has happened has overwhelmed else,” said one of them, Fatima Vazquez. “It has overwhelmed our entire country.”

In other developments, Colombia sent experts to try to determine just how the fire spread through the vast, multilevel building.

Cuban President Fidel Castro also sent condolences. Several other Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, have offered supplies, medicine or doctors to treat the many burn victims.