At the scene, residents help, cry and gawk
In the neighbourhood it was impossible to ignore. Traffic in the main avenue of the Buenos Aires City south-side neighbourhood of Barracas — Regimiento de los Patricios — was at a complete halt.
Buses and cars were forced to change their route giving priority to the dozens of fire trucks, policemen, border guards and Civil Defence vans. Thick air hovered over the six blocks nearest to the scene, characterized by ash, small pieces of burnt paper and an acrid burning smell.
That did not stop people from gathering at the site of the tragedy. Some were eager to help.
“I live six blocks from here and I came to bring water to the firefighters. They are exhausted, working in almost 39-degree temperatures, in almost inhumane conditions. They are real heroes,” a resident of the area told the Herald.
She was hardly alone.
Hernán, 44, arrived to the scene with a bag of groceries.
“I bought some sodas and cookies for the fire guards, they’ve been here all day,” he said.
Others, however, just wanted to watch.
“I live here. I didn’t hear anything, though. Indeed, I found out about the fire through the news. But after work I saw the news vans and I came to see how everything continues,” Pablo, 30, said.
The fire started at 8.15am in the warehouse located on 1245 Azara street, but the tragedy struck only minutes later, when a group of firefighters reportedly trying to push through a gate to get inside with the fire truck were trapped under a seven-metre-high wall that suddenly collapsed.
Six firefighters from the Federal Police, a volunteer fireman from the Vuelta de Rocha fire station (based in the nearby La Boca neighbourhood) and two members of Civil Defence were among the fatalities.
Another 12 people were injured, but at press time only six remained in hospital while the other six had already been released. Berni stated that the six remaining victims were two volunteer firemen from Vuelta de Rocha fire station and four Federal Police officers.
Besides the wall that collapsed at 8.15am, another three walls also fell in the morning, but did not cause fatalities. Residents of nearby buildings and other witnesses of the event said that the first collapse happened when firemen were trying to open the gate, and after 15 minutes the other three walls began collapsing.
According to a resident of the area, there were cracks in the walls, which could have facilitated the collapse. But firemen working on removing rubble stated that the cracks were generated by the fire.
“We found many bodies covered by wreckage with severe injuries. Most died at the scene,” Alberto Crescenti explained.
Around noon fire-fighters managed to extinguish the biggest flames and during the afternoon around 200 men were still working on controlling the smoke and removing rubble.
At press time, a memorial was to be held in the Central Fire Station.
The causes of the fire
Prosecutor Marcela Sánchez, from the Office of the Public Prosecutor No. 37, stated that she will order an investigation to determine what caused the disaster. Her main hypothesis after interviewing three employees who escaped the flames is that the early fire-warning system failed.
Three employees explained to Sánchez that the fire extinguishing system had not worked. This system includes a sprinkler system that should have automatically turned on when the fire began.
Expert analysis of the crime scene is expected to begin today while the three employees will formally testify in the Prosecutor’s Office No. 37 today.
The warehouse — which stored documents from banks, telephone and oil companies — was authorized by the Buenos Aires City Government in 2007.