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Store Owners Charged in Paraguay Fire as Death Toll Climbs to More Than 400 - 2004-08-03


Authorities in Paraguay have filed manslaughter charges in connection with a fire at a supermarket where more than 400 people died. Workers continue the grisly task of identifying the dead and treating the wounded.

As funerals continue for the second day in Asuncion, a supermarket security guard has told authorities that he was instructed to lock the doors of the building to prevent shoplifting and looting.

The owners of the supermarket remain in police custody, but deny allegations that they ordered the exits locked shortly after the fire erupted on Sunday afternoon. A local judge is reviewing the case before deciding whether to charge the men in connection with the deaths.

Survivors of the inferno say that scores of people were able to reach the exits, only to find the doors locked shut. Many were forced to escape through broken windows. Investigators believe that the ceiling collapsed in one part of the building, trapping and crushing dozens of people who were attempting to flee.

Recovery efforts have been delayed because firefighters are afraid other parts of the building could also collapse.

Paraguay's emergency services have been stretched to their limit trying to cope with the hundreds of bodies, many of them burned beyond recognition.

Hundreds of other people remain hospitalized with first-degree burns and respiratory problems.

Pope John Paul II has sent his condolences to this primarily Catholic nation, as have President Bush and other world leaders. Supplies and medicine continue to arrive from neighboring South American countries.

Authorities suspect that the deadliest fire in Paraguay's history was caused by an exploding gas canister inside the building.

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