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Mexican day care deaths stir anger at safety rules

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, according to witnesses. One mother said a second door to the day care was bolted shut and nobody could find the key.

Forty-two children were killed in the devastating fire, and a total of 33 adults and children remain hospitalized, Daniel Karam, the director of Mexico's Social Security Institute, which outsourced services to the privately run center, said last night.

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.

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

Yet the ABC day care - a converted warehouse - passed a safety inspection less than two weeks before the fire, Karam said.

Some found that hard to believe.

"How is it 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. With only one exit for evacuation, several desperate civilians broke huge holes into the outer walls, including one man who rammed his pickup truck against the day care three times.

Fire officials still don't know how the blaze started.

Two of the most seriously injured children, a 3-year-old boy and girl, were sent to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Northern California. The boy, who was burned over about half his body, was scheduled to undergo several hours of skin graft surgery yesterday - the first of many operations he is likely to have, said Dr. David Greenhalgh, chief of burns at the Sacramento hospital.

Both the boy and the girl, who was burned over 80 percent of her body, were in critical condition and under constant monitoring because of the high risk of infection, Greenhalgh said.

The children were awake and able to communicate although they couldn't talk because they have breathing tubes, Greenhalgh said.

More than 5,000 attended a Mass for the victims at a concert hall yesterday evening in Hermosillo, the capital of the northwestern state of Sonora where the fire erupted Friday.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 on duty the day of the fire.

Gastelum said the day care practices fire drills, but some of the teachers seemed too injured or in shock to go back inside 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.

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.

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.

Teachers were rushing from the building, he said, 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.

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

Ofelia Quintero lives a half-block from the day care. Though her grandson was picked up from the center just before the fire erupted, 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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