Death toll in Guatemala fire climbs to 36 amid outcry over girls' treatment

GUATEMALA CITY -- Guatemala’s president called for a restructuring of his country’s youth shelter system following a fire that killed at least 36 girls at an overcrowded government facility for children, sending a nation into shock and anger. 

The death toll mounted slowly Friday as girls succumbed to gruesome burn injuries in Wednesday’s mattress-fueled blaze. Parents and relatives said many had been sent to the shelter because of abuse, poverty or family problems. But questions remained over why someone among the girls set the blaze, and whether doors at the shelter remained locked even as the girls pleaded for their lives.

Claudia Lima broke down and cried at the entrance to Guatemala City’s Roosevelt Hospital Friday. Her daughter Sara Noemi, 15, was being treated inside for burns that covered 70 percent of her body.

“The doctors say there isn’t much hope she will live,” Lima said, weeping.

“I heard on the news that my daughter was one of the girls who set the fire at the shelter, that’s not true,” she said. “My daughter wouldn’t try to take her own life.”

That was a reference to widespread reports -- including some by other victims’ relatives -- that some of the girls set mattresses on fire to protest their re-apprehension and return to the facility, where they said fled because of mistreatment, bad food and fears of rape.

Neighbors attend the wake of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez in Guatemala City, Thursday, March 9, 2017 AP

Nineteen girls died at the scene of the fire and another 17 later succumbed to their injuries in area hospitals. Many were there because their parents couldn’t handle them, or they had problems at home.

Geovany Castillo said his 15-year-old daughter Kimberly suffered burns on her face, arms and hands but survived. She was in a locked area where girls who took part in the escape attempt had been placed, he said.

“My daughter said the area was locked and that several girls broke down a door, and she survived because she put a wet sheet over herself,” Castillo said.

“She said the girls told her that they had been raped and in protest they escaped, and that later, to protest, to get attention, they set fire to the mattresses,” he said.

Dolls on charcoal in a performance art piece in memory of the victims of a fire in a shelter for children, outside Presidential House in Guatemala City, Thu., March 9, 2017 AP

Many believed reports that the doors at the overcrowded shelter had remained locked even as the fires spread, though authorities say the circumstances are still under investigation.

Vianney Clareth Hernandez was waiting outside a morgue with a photo of her daughter, Ashley, 14, who she was searching for. Ashley was at the shelter but her mother hasn’t found her at local hospitals.

“It was a crime they didn’t open the doors, they didn’t do anything to get the girls out, even though they were screaming,” Hernandez said.

Other grieving families began receiving the bodies of girls whose remains had been identified.

The shelter outside Guatemala City held some 800 children and mixed victims of abuse or dysfunctional homes with youthful offenders.

“This is a rigid system that has become insensitive,” said President Jimmy Morales, adding that there are 1,500 children in government facilities across Guatemala, the vast majority of whom have families.

Morales called for the system to be decentralized. Despite his promises of change, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the seat of government calling for the president’s resignation.

Late Thursday night, in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala’s capital, relatives and friends gathered for the wake of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez.

A wooden casket swathed in white silk and flanked by tall candles sat inside the family’s humble home. A picture of Madelyn stood between purple flowers.

Madelyn had been orphaned since gang members killed her mother for not paying extortion when the girl was 3 years old, said her grandmother, Maria Antonia Garcia. Her father had not been involved in her life.

Madelyn had misbehaved, but was expected to get out of the shelter on March 30 after several months in the facility, Garcia said. However, a judge did not want to return the girl to the custody of her 73-year-old grandmother because of her age.

Garcia said Madelyn had complained that she and other girls were beaten.

“She never told me who beat them,” the grandmother said, demanding justice from authorities. “If there isn’t justice now, they are going to keep doing the same. It’s going to happen again.”