Grief Grips Peruvian Community One Month After Deadly Fire

Feb 27, 2020
5:15 PM

This Feb. 23, 2020 photo shows a makeshift altar honoring people, victims of a gas tanker leak that triggered fires and explosions killing 30 people in the Sector 6 neighborhood of the Villa El Salvador district, in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

By FRANKLIN BRICEÑO Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) — One month after a gas tanker leak triggered fires and explosions that killed 30 people in the Peruvian capital, traumatized survivors and relatives of victims are still waiting to know who was responsible.

They include Paola Lizeta, whose 13-year-old son, Jean Francis Álvarez, ran back toward his house to try to rescue his dog and died a week later after suffering severe burns. The dog, Lester, survived.

“Sometimes he wants me to pick him up,” Lizeta said of the dog. “I embrace him with all my strength.”

Some 14 people were also injured in the blaze that swept through the Sector 6 neighborhood of the Villa El Salvador district in Lima on January 23. While prosecutors say they are working hard to close their investigation, grief and disillusionment have overwhelmed the neighborhood.

“Nobody has been jailed. There’s no justice,” said 26-year-old Vanesa Meza, who lost her aunt and four nieces in the disaster. Four of Meza’s nephews —the youngest is a baby— remain hospitalized with burns over half their bodies.

Visible as a white cloud, liquefied gas leaked from a tanker after its pump hit a sharply angled speed bump at an intersection, according to a police report. Residents rushed away from the cloud, but someone started a car and a spark ignited the gas, Lizeta said.

In this January 23, 2020 file photo, a firefighter cools a roof with water after a gas tanker leak triggered a fires and explosions, killing 30 people in the Villa Maria shantytown of Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

Prosecutor Humberto Durán is investigating the tanker driver, the gas distribution company, Lima Mayor Jorge Muñoz, Villa El Salvador Mayor Kevin Iñigo and other officials.

The administrations of Muñoz and Iñigo blame each other for the lack of road maintenance at the intersection where the disaster happened.

In addition, the tanker driver, 72-year-old Luis Guzmán, wasn’t authorized to transport liquefied gas and had been fined five times for transporting dangerous cargo without observing safety protocols.

On January 23, Guzmán should have had a colleague with him, but was driving solo. His vehicle didn’t have proper fenders or a system that would automatically prevent the gas from escaping into the air.

Emergency services were slow to arrive at the scene to help victims and put out the flames. Firefighters admitted later that a fire engine was out of order after a road accident. Wilder Félix, a water distributor, was passing through the area and pitched in with supplies from his truck to fight the fire consuming people, homes and vehicles.

Authorities have promised to rebuild two homes and help fix 23 others, but civil defense officials say the damage is much more extensive.

Today, the Sector 6 neighborhood still smells of ashes. Some residents prefer to walk at night so they don’t see the debris from the fire. For a while, there were funerals of victims almost every day.

The neighborhood knows about suffering. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Shining Path guerrilla group staged attacks and killings of local leaders in the area.

Jean Francis Álvarez didn’t find his dog after rushing back to his home to look for the mixed breed pet, which had escaped by another route. His mother, Lizeta, later received a call saying he was in the emergency room. The boy had been burned over 80% of his body.

She found her son sitting with his feet in a container full of water, strips of skin hanging from him.

“Son, give yourself to God,” Lizeta recalled saying.

“I’m cold, mummy, cover me,” Jean Francis said.

That was the last time they spoke. The boy later died from septic shock.