Shanty Town Blaze Leaves More Than 300 Homeless

December 17, 2004

AS more than a million people celebratedthe Festival of Lights parade indowntown San José Saturday night, residentsin the Bribri shanty town in Pavas,west of San José, suffered through a tragiclight show of their own as flames consumed77 homes.No one was seriously injured, although144 children and 170 adults lost theirhomes and possessions to the fire, accordingto authorities.“Two people required oxygen for respiratoryproblems induced by the fumes,but no one needed to be transferred to ahospital, which is incredible for a fire ofthis size,” said Noemy Coto, spokeswomanfor the Costa Rican Red Cross.The National Emergency Commission(CNE) set up temporary shelters forapproximately 122 people in two areachurches. The commission provided peoplewith food, sleeping pads and sheets,said CNE representative RebecaMadrigal.THE blaze was first reported by a residentat 6:30 p.m. and took more than twohours to extinguish, according to HectorChávez, director of the NationalFirefighters. He said firefighters arrived atthe site within eight minutes of receivingthe call and found “serious problems withthe water supply.”The nearest hydrant was more than 500meters away and released enough water toput out a fire in three or four houses, not77, according to firefighters.Carmen María Gómez, a victim of thefire, said she and her husband lost everythingexcept for a small oven they pulledout of their shack.“WE were in San José buying presentsfor the kids, and when we returnedwe realized the place was burning up. It’sa terrible and sad thing; we may have tospend Christmas in this church,” Gómezsaid.“Now we can only wait for a solutionfrom the government,” she added.The Red Cross handed out more than300 personal hygiene kits to those affectedby the fire, Coto said.Freddy Gómez, from the MixedInstitute for Social Aid (IMAS), said theinstitute handed out checks to victims in arecord time of less than 48 hours, whilenormally it takes them 72. Although he didnot provide details on the amounts of theassistance checks, he said normally familiesuse the donations for rent and basicservices for three months.Chávez said by today, the NationalFirefighters’ Investigative Unit wasexpected to have determined the source ofthe fire, which spread over 3,700 squaremeters.ACCORDING to a San José firefighterwith 23 years of experience, who askedthat his name not be published, it will bepractically impossible to determine thesource of this fire.“The problem here is that after the firewas put out, people came back and wentthrough the ashes, moving and takingthings,” which makes finding evidence difficult,he said.“The fire may have resulted from ashort circuit, cables can be exposed or connectedimproperly to steal electricity fromoutside,” he added.The firefighter, who said he sees a patternin the way fires break out in shantytowns such as Bribri, recalls putting outsimilar fires in Santa Ana in 1988 and in aPavas urbanization known as “LaManaguita,” more than a year ago (TT,Oct. 31, 2003).“PEOPLE don’t understand the dangerthey’re in at a place like this, wherehouses are made of the thinnest, cheapestwood and zinc, and people cook with woodovens.“People don’t learn,” he added. “A firebreaks out and destroys a shanty town, andtwo weeks later, they rebuild their homesusing the same materials and the sameelectrical connections.”Chávez said 63 shanty towns in SanJosé present difficult access for fire trucks– or no access at all.THE Red Cross headquarters in SanJosé is collecting food, clothes, blankets,mattresses and other donations for victimsof Saturday’s fire – many of whomhave nothing but the clothes they werewearing. For information call 233-7033.On Dec. 23, the Jazz Café in San Pedrowill hold a Christmas concert to raisefunds for the Bribri fire victims. The activity,organized by Mario Campos andGabriela Zamora from the Jazz Garboband, is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m., andwill include repertoire of Christmas carolswith a jazzy twist.People are asked to bring a new toy(non-violent in character) to be given to achild from the Bribri urbanization. Forinformation, call 293-1158 or 365-8522.

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