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Families mourn victims of Buenos Aires fire

Mourning families on Sunday buried victims of the nightclub fire that killed at least 188 people and injured more than 700.
Friends and relatives of one victim of the nightclub fire attend the burial at Chacaritas cemetery in Buenos Aires on Sunday.Ivan Franco / EFE via Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mourning families on Sunday buried victims of the nightclub fire that killed at least 188 people and injured more than 700, while Buenos Aires’ public security chief resigned in the furor following revelations that some of the packed club’s emergency exits were locked.

The funerals came before a pot-banging protest as irate Buenos Aires residents demanded a full government accounting for Thursday’s calamity, the worst fire tragedy in this country in recent memory.

At one gravesite, a toddler stood dazed as relatives tearfully clutched at a coffin before it was laid into the earth. At another funeral, mourners clapped spontaneously for a 20-year-old man, bidding him farewell as his remains were placed in a crypt on a hot summer day in South America.

Elsewhere, anger was palpable on traditionally one of the most festive holiday weekends of the year. “Resign! Resign!” several hundred people shouted during a march late Saturday on the offices of Mayor Anibal Ibarra. The town hall was shielded by helmeted riot police behind iron gates, but no violence was reported.

Protesters, in calling for Ibarra to step down, said city officials must toughen safety codes for concert halls and rock clubs.

Probe demanded
They also demanded a full investigation of reports that emergency exits at the Cromagnon Republic club were locked as panicked crowds surged toward the doors, choking on thick black smoke and trampling each other in desperate efforts to get out. Authorities said the exits were either tied shut or padlocked to prevent people from entering without paying.

About 4,000 people, mostly teenagers, were inside the club for a concert of the Argentine rock band Los Callejeros when the fire broke out late Thursday. Investigators are determining whether a flare set off by a member of the audience ignited foam on the ceiling. The building has a capacity for only 1,500 people, city officials said.

Many of the victims died from smoke inhalation, city officials said. Local reports said bodies were found piled atop each near one blocked exit and a newspaper photograph showed piles of shoes, mostly tennis sneakers, left by the victims.

Beset by public indignation, the Buenos Aires public security chief, Juan Carlos Lopez, resigned over the weekend.

Ibarra, the mayor, on Saturday ordered dance clubs in the city to close for 15 days for safety inspections and scrapped any future indoor club concerts. He said investigators were probing several possible safety lapses, but declared that the “most serious breach was by someone who set off a flare in an enclosed area.”

Investigators said they had identified three people believed to have launched a flare that ignited the fire, but were trying to determine if they could be among the dead.

On Sunday, federal police reported two more deaths as the casualty toll crept upward. Health officials said 263 people remained hospitalized, 117 in serious or critical condition. At the site of the club, Argentines left candles and flowers, but much of the debris had been swept away by Sunday.

Dozens unidentified
At the morgue, dozens of bodies remained unidentified as a crowd of anxious relatives milled about in the heat outside.

Awaiting word on a missing loved one, an older woman fainted and rolled on the ground as someone shouted “ambulance!” and she was rushed away. “Why so much pain? Where is my son?” muttered a gray-haired man as he slumped in the heat, his shirt open at the chest. “I can’t bear this! How did this happen?”

The club’s owner, Omar Chaban, was under arrest and expected to face an initial court hearing Monday. Police said they also were seeking three of Chaban’s business associates who had not contacted authorities after the fire.

Police said they were investigating survivor accounts that a bathroom inside the nightclub had been used as a makeshift nursery, where parents left their children during the show. Dozens of young children were among the victims.

President Nestor Kirchner, who was in his native Patagonia province of Santa Cruz for the holidays, declared three days of national mourning for the victims and sent his condolences to the families.