Blaze destroys Lima night club, kills 25

Sunday, July 21, 2002

LIMA, Peru -- At least 25 people died and 100 were injured Saturday in a blaze started by bartenders who were doing tricks with fire at an upscale night club in Lima that was not licensed to operate. Customers fueled the fire by trying to put out the flames with their drinks.

A lion and tiger -- part of a show that included live animals in cages -- were also killed.

The fire, coming just months after a far deadlier blaze that consumed a large part of the city, prompted calls for a crackdown on businesses that disregard safety regulations, a common practice in Peru. As well as not having a permit, the disco violated several fire safety regulations.

"We will punish with a hard and firm hand and with all the weight of the law the irresponsible people who manage these establishments that don't comply with the law," President Alejandro Toledo said.

Entertaining with fire

The fire broke out about 3 a.m. in the Utopia, a multilevel night club in a shopping mall in the upscale district of Surco, in southeastern Lima. Witnesses said the club was packed at the time and bartenders were entertaining guests in their usual manner on weekends -- with fire.

One survivor, Claudio Villanueva, said bartenders were launching plumes of fire into the air by spraying aerosol cans and lighting the jet of gas.

Moises Gordillo, 30, who was also at the club, said he saw a bartender tossing a flaming object into the air, where it ignited the ceiling of the club. Many thought the ceiling fire was part of the show, he said, but as it spread customers tried to put it out with their drinks, fueling it with the alcohol.

"People were yelling, 'Don't run, Don't run!' The music booth began burning and spewing out a lot of smoke. Then the lights went out and there was collective panic," he said.

A stampede ensued. "It was total chaos," Gordillo said.

He estimated there were between 900 and 1,000 people in the club. But Jorge Leon, a fire department commander, said the hall could not hold more than 400 people.

Health Minister Fernando Carbone said 25 people died, most from asphyxiation.

Fire chief Tulio Nicolini said the disco was not following safety standards and did not have marked emergency exits, fire extinguishers or a fire alarm. Surco's mayor, Carlos Dargent, said the club was also operating without a permit.

Distraught relatives and friends of victims gathered at several health clinics where the injured were being treated and the Lima morgue.

Luis Ramirez broke into tears as he crossed the street near the San Pablo health clinic in Surco to hug a friend. "My friend died. He suffocated in the fire at the disco. That's all I know," he said.

Authorities closed off the sprawling shopping mall but the fire appeared to have been contained to the night club.

The blaze came just months after 274 people died in Peru's deadliest fire ever when a fireworks explosion in late December devoured four blocks of shops and decrepit apartment buildings in downtown Lima.

Carbone said disasters such as the disco fire and the fireworks explosion are avoidable, but only if Peruvians put an end to the common practice of disregarding safety regulations.

"We have to convince ourselves that only order can avoid this" Carbone told reports outside the Lima morgue.

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