- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Locked doors prevented or slowed the escape of supermarket shoppers from a fast-spreading fire that killed at least 318 persons and injured hundreds, survivors said yesterday. The market’s two owners were detained for questioning.

The cause of Paraguay’s worst disaster in decades was not known, but police said they were investigating whether a gas canister explosion in the food court might have started the Sunday blaze, in which 276 persons were injured.

The owners, a father and son, denied that the doors were locked.

The fire tore through the bustling, three-story supermarket in a suburb of Asuncion, the capital, during lunch hour. The blaze collapsed one floor and engulfed the food court and parking garage.

Esther Benitez, a 30-year-old cashier who suffered burns, said she found her way blocked as she tried to escape.

“I ran toward the main door, but it was locked,” she said from her hospital bed yesterday.

Some neighbors said they were forced to break windows to enter the supermarket to rescue those inside, because the doors wouldn’t open.

“There were people crowded outside the main entrance using sticks and poles trying to open the door,” said Raul Tamay, who rushed to the supermarket and found his brother, Hernan, who had been shopping.

“We couldn’t get inside, and the people couldn’t get out,” said Liliana Hernandez, 33, who lives next door to the Ycua Bolanos supermarket.

She said firefighters, frustrated in their efforts to get inside, had to resort to battering holes through a wall of her house to reach the supermarket.

“They broke two giant holes in the wall to carry bodies out,” she said.

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