December 20, 2013
Victims of Boca fire continue reeling
Close to Buenos Aires City’s downtown financial district, and just seven blocks from the tourist hotspot of Caminito in the neighbourhood of La Boca, people sleep in a tent set up in the middle of the street.
They don’t live in such conditions by choice, they would prefer not to. But they have lost their home, belongings and even members of their family, with everything burnt to the ground last weekend.
“There is nothing left for us here,” says Mary, whose eyes well with tears when she is asked by the Herald about the fire at the now-destroyed tenement house on Carlos Melo 850. It was a large house, very typical for La Boca, where families rented rooms and shared their daily routines, almost like an extended family.
Mary is 30, but she looks older, and exhausted.
“All we were able to salvage from the flames were the clothes we managed to grab while running outside,” she adds. Everything else is now ashes. Beds, furniture, even the money they saved with the utmost of effort over the last few months.
Mary was one of the lucky ones.
Víctor and Héctor Herrera, brothers aged 9 and 11, perished in the flames. They weren’t able to escape or be saved from their second-story bedroom once flames began devouring the building.
Another 11 residents were injured after they inhaled toxic fumes.
“It was like hell,” Diego says, sitting at Mary’s side. And that was all he said, subsequently excusing himself and walking away, suggesting it was too difficult to talk.
Since last weekend Mary, Diego and other survivors have been living in the streets, receiving the help of neighbours and political organizations such the Darío Santillán Front, named after the social activist killed by police in 2002 in the middle of rioting during the economic crisis.
They refused to leave what remains of their homes, fearing they might lose their land. Some Buenos Aires City officials approached the site to offer victims a 1,800 pesos emergency subsidy to rent a hotel room. But not everyone trusts the offer.
What remains unclear is whether the fire that destoyed these people’s homes and belongings and claimed the lives of two young boys last weekend was accidental or sparked on purpose.
Yesterday, Juan Andrés Necol, the national prosecutor who heads the investigation, suggested that the latter hypothesis was not at all improbable.
“Apparently, we might be facing criminal intent in the blaze,” he said, before warning that “forensic examinations are not ready yet — We must wait for results.”
The court’s most valuable lead at this point is the footage recorded by nearby closed circuit cameras.
“Tapes have already been collected,” Necol said. “We’ll see what we can get from those pieces of evidence.”
Just a few days ago, Necol reacted cautiously when confronted by journalists about the possibility of intent, after leftist activists who assist La Boca’s poorest neighbours on a daily basis alleged hidden interests and motives behind the fire.
They argue that real-state speculation in an area that has seen land prices soar over the last few years could be behind the incident.
So far, they have listed five similar episodes over the last four years, which caused 12 fatalities. The last ocurred only two days ago, on Juan de Dios Filiberto street, near the burnt tenement house.
“You must agree it’s a bit suspicious with all these fires in the same zone and with so many similarities,” University of Buenos Aires professor Marcelo Ramal told the Herald.
Ramal is currenly running for a seat in the City Legislature seat on the ticket of the Workers’ Leftist Front.
“The Buenos Aires City government is providing them with temporary benefits, like housing subsidies, but these properties are never returned to their previous residents,” Ramal claimed. “Fires end up working as tacit evictions.”
Leftist activists also higlighted that residents of the burned-down property heard people yelling outside the building the morning of the fire, probably threatening them, though prosecutor Necol claimed no witnesses have come forward to report such claim.