ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – The burns covering more than 35% of his body are not what hurt Felipe Palacios the most.
It was the news his wife delivered 30 days after the Aug. 1, 2004 fire that destroyed the Ycuá Bolaños supermarket in the Trinidad neighborhood of Asunción that still bring Palacios the most pain.
His three daughters, who had accompanied Palacios and his wife to the supermarket, had succumbed to the injuries they suffered in the blaze, regarded as the worst civilian tragedy in Paraguayan history.
“It was the worst moment in my life,” said Palacios, 63, as he stood in front of the supermarket’s ruins exactly eight years after it burned to the ground. “There aren’t words to describe the pain that I felt. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember being happy with them. It’s not something I’ll forget today, tomorrow or ever.”
Palacios was part of a crowd of 1,200 who attended a ceremony to remember the 409 lives that were claimed by the fire, which also injured 500 and orphaned 206 children. Six people are still considered missing.
The ceremony featured a massive Paraguayan flag covered with photographs of those who died in the fire. At precisely 11:20 a.m. – the moment the blaze ignited – fire engines sounded their sirens as 409 white balloons were released to honor the victims.
The ceremony also featured an altar, where photographs and belongings of the deceased were placed next to items from the supermarket, such as the remains of cash registers melted by the flames.
The fire began in Ycuá Bolaños’ restaurant area, where an exhaust pipe caked in grease because it hadn’t been properly maintained ignited. The fire spread to other areas inside the shopping center, according to the testimony of witnesses.
Most of the victims were trapped inside because the owners of the supermarket had locked the exits to prevent robberies, according to testimony by witnesses and survivors.
Juan Pío Paiva – the supermarket’s owner – and his son, Víctor Daniel Paiva, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to 12 and 10 years in prison, respectively, at their trial in February 2008.
The court also sentenced Daniel Areco, a security guard at the establishment, to five years in prison for negligent homicide, and Humberto Casaccia, an Ycuá Bolaños shareholder, to 30 months for endangering human life.
But the Ycuá Bolaños victims are not satisfied with the punishments given to those responsible for the fire and its fatal consequences.
“We continue to fight against the impunity that affected not just the victims of Ycuá Bolaños, but all of society because no lesson was learned,” said Carmen Rivarola, from the Ycuá Bolaños Victims Association. “Shopping areas still lack safety and prevention systems.”
Carmen Ramírez, whose 20-year-old daughter Delia Beatriz, died in the fire, agrees with Rivarola.
“We still hope that justice will be done,” she said. “I’m not satisfied with the punishment they gave to those responsible. They didn’t make an example out of anyone.”
The victims remember
Tatiana Judith Gabaglio, who was 7 on Aug. 1, 2004, went with a neighbor and her daughter to go shopping at the supermarket. At 11:20 a.m., she heard an explosion come from the restaurant area.
“At that moment, I grabbed the hands of my neighbor and her daughter and we headed for the door,” said Gabaglio, now 15. “At the same time, we were overrun by an avalanche of people, desperately running to the exit. I heard what sounded like machine gun fire. It was the ceiling panels, which were quickly collapsing as the fire advanced.”
Gabaglio continued: “I fell to the ground, near a checkout counter, toward the exit. I stayed there and covered my face so that I wouldn’t get burned. I immediately felt something hot and heavy on my right leg. It was a ceiling panel, which was covering my leg.”
Gabaglio was rescued by a firefighter from the National Police who carried her in his arms through a hole that had been opened in order to evacuate the building. She was taken to the closest hospital, where she remained in the Intensive Care Unit for 22 days.
“One week after the fire, they gave my mother more painful news: They had to amputate my leg in order to keep me alive because my third-degree burns became infected,” Gabaglio said.
Meantime, Francisca Alonso de Giménez lost her daughter Mirna Marlene Giménez, 36, grandchildren, Gustavo Javier, 11, María Paz, 8, and José Sebastián, 2, and her husband Zacarías Giménez, 55, in the Ycuá Bolaños tragedy.
“Mirna was an exceptional daughter – she went with me everywhere,” Alonso, 67, said. “My three grandchildren were the most beautiful things in my life. My husband was my faithful companion. It’s hard for me to deal with so much pain, with their absence, but thanks to the angels in heaven and our faith, we can continue on in this world.”
Her husband passed away on Dec. 4, 2006, losing his battle to the smoke he inhaled while trying to rescue his daughter and grandchildren.
The Paraguayan government has used Law 3993/10, which has been approved by Congress and funded through the Ministry of Finance, to compensate some of the victims of the Ycuá Bolaños fire.
In April 2011, a first payment totaling $4,051,197,500 guaranies (US$687,256) was split among about 50 families, according to the Ministry of Finance.
But closure for the Palacios family wasn’t monetary.
“In keeping with our Christian and Catholic faith, we decided to form a new family and we adopted two children: 7-year-old Iris Natalia and 5-year-old Matías de Jesús,” he said.
“Why did we do it at this point in our lives? Because having children is the most beautiful thing in the world,” Palacios added. “In our hearts, they’re our children and they’re the ones who bring happiness into our home. They’re our reason to keep on living.”