Jane Embury looks back at a major fire where containment was non-existent
Last week I wrote about the importance of containment if a fire breaks out.
Containment is simply about trapping the fire in the place where it started, and making sure that it doesn’t spread.
It’s about protecting lives and property. But it’s also about business continuity because many companies go out of business after a major fire.
In this and in a further article, I’ll look at two notable fires that illustrate how containment can fail.
Here, I’ll look at a fire in South America that shocked the world in 2004. In the next article I’ll look at containment in a residential property in the USA. That fire was notable because it helped us gain a better understanding of how fires can quickly escalate.
The first fire I’ll look at started in the food court of a shopping complex on the outskirts of Asunción, Paraguay.
It began with a spark in a faulty chimney. That comparatively minor incident in the Ycuá Bolaños supermarket would go on to orphan over 200 children.
The tragedy began towards midday when a charcoal spark ignited grease that had accumulated due to a lack of maintenance. The fire then spread unnoticed between the three-storey building’s false ceiling and roof. This then caused the release of flammable gases.
The shock wave created by the first explosion broke external windows in the bakery section, flooding in oxygen. This allowed the fire to rapidly expand from the food court to the rest of the store. It also spread to the central air conditioning system, causing its nitrogen coolant to explode.
The fire then spread downwards to the underground garage, where a car exploded. This set off another shock wave that brought the ground floor crashing into the basement. This effectively cut off lower level escape routes and dozens died in their cars.
The final toll was 364 dead, nine simply “disappeared,” and nearly 500 injured. Forty-six children died. The sheer scale of the tragedy so overwhelmed local health services that burns victims were also treated in nearby Uruguay.
Paraguay’s Supreme Court later found the supermarket’s owners guilty of culpable homicide. The building lacked an effective fire detection system and failed to meet minimum safety standards or adequate escape routes. For that, the building’s architect was also sentenced to two years in prison.
But it wasn’t just the inadequate escape routes. Several survivors and firefighters testified that, when the fire broke out, exit doors were deliberately locked. This was to stop people from leaving without paying for merchandise.
The Paraguay fire was therefore a tragic event made horrendously worse by human failures. Designing a bad building without adequate containment or means of escape, and then compounding that folly by deliberately blocking exits.
The main lesson from the Paraguay disaster is that fire can spread with devastating speed. That’s particularly the case in a large open space such as a supermarket or factory. And when it does get out of control, the best means of survival is escape.