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Death Toll Continues to Rise in Peru Fireworks Fire - 2001-12-31

The death toll in a conflagration in downtown Lima, Peru, set off by the explosion of fireworks, has risen to more than 240, with some 88 listed as injured in local hospitals. The grim numbers may rise further as firemen continue to pull bodies out of the rubble. The government has decided to take drastic action against fireworks.

As clean up operations got into full swing on Sunday, the tragic dimensions of the fire became obvious. The blaze consumed shops and apartments in a four-block area, leaving charred bodies and carcasses of burned-out cars strewn in the streets.

Selling illegal fireworks in this old town commercial district known as the Round Table has long been a sore spot for the municipality of Lima. In early December, the mayor's office, aided by police, raided the illegal fireworks shops, but a municipal officer, Gabriela Adrianzen, says that after a change of the regional police chief December 20, the police protection for the municipality raids was withdrawn.

Ms. Adrianzen says that the municipality needs the national police and cannot act alone with the help of only local police. She says when the city tried to close the shops December 27 in the area two local police officers were seriously injured by angry merchants.

President Alejandro Toledo Saturday night announced that, effective immediately, the sale, manufacture and importation of pyrotechnic devices was prohibited. The president also promised financial help for burials and offered to find new locations for those whose property was destroyed.

Fireworks are traditionally part of Christmas and New Year's celebrations here, but as Lima's fire chief put it, "There has to be a better way to welcome the New Year."