- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

LIMA, Peru Firefighters dug through the rubble yesterday of a massive blaze sparked by a fireworks explosion in historic downtown Lima four blocks from Congress, retrieving more than 250 bodies by nightfall.
Propelled by exploding fireworks at dozens of sidewalk stands, a wall of fire raced across four blocks Saturday night, trapping holiday shoppers and street vendors who had jammed the narrow streets lined with shops and aging apartment buildings.
There was little hope of finding survivors inside the burned-out buildings, where temperatures exceeded 1,100 degrees at the height of the fire. The body count mounted through the day as firefighters made their way into cavernous tenements to search through debris.
Lima Fire Chief Tulio Nicolini initially said the blaze appeared to have started in a warehouse filled with fireworks, but several witnesses said it began when a firecracker exploded in an area spilling over with stands selling fireworks.
One survivor, 31-year-old Jose Fernandez Vega, said many people were trapped.
"The way out was blocked by taxis and people in the streets," Mr. Vega said from the Arzobispo Loayza hospital, where he was being treated for burns to his arms, face and ears.
"People were trapped, screaming, in cars and the shopping galleries. Old people, women, children," he said. "People were burning standing up. They were burning on top of one another."
At least 122 persons, including small children, were found dead in the streets after the towering blaze raced down the streets, accompanied by the machine-gunlike explosions of fireworks from the stands that clogged the sidewalks.
Firefighters going through the rubble of fire-gutted buildings yesterday continued to find more and more bodies. By nightfall, Doris Sanchez, a Cabinet minister in charge of women's issues, said the official death toll was 276. But Col. Ruben Ibanez, of Peru's civil defense agency, later put the confirmed figure at 256. At least 144 more were hospitalized with burns.

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