The Mesa Redonda fire of the 29th December 2001, just two days before New Year caused deaths in the hundreds. Now, almost six years on, an almost identical tragedy was narrowly avoided, showing that no lessons had been learned.The Mesa Redonda shopping district in downtown Lima was jam-packed full of people, as it normally was, but more so now in the height of shopping season. The narrow streets and colonial buildings housed formal stores and galleries and hundreds of informal salespeople who sold their merchandise outside on the narrow streets, blocking perhaps two-thirds of them. This blocked the passage of pedestrians and vehicles, leaving crowds of people to shuffle through the streets in a sea of bodies for hours to find the bargains they were searching for. There were many bargains to be had, for this is the place you come if you have a limited budget. The centre of Lima may be crowded and dirty, but it’s the place to come if you want cheap goods. One of the cheap goods on display at this time of year is fireworks, needed to properly celebrate the New Year.
At 7:15pm, when the streets bulged just that little more with people, one of the thousands of fireworks sold on the streets was let off when a customer asked for a demonstration. The firework exploded and landed on a nearby roof of the shopping districted, where tons of fireworks and flammable boxes filled with flammable items were stored floor to roof, blocking exits. The fire spread in seconds with other buildings catching fire. The entire district went up in flames in a huge fireball that produced temperatures well above 800ºC.
With streets impassable for cars and people alike, with the fire exits in buildings blocked by boxes and many even padlocked, as many as 291 people are known to have been burned to death in flames and explosions the raced down the streets and through buildings. There was no time for death via smoke inhalation here.
For days afterwards, family members descended on central Lima hospitals and morgues, holding photographs of their disappeared loved ones, hoping that somehow someone would bring them news that their family members were still alive. In the confusion, the number listed as disappeared rose to more than 800. Close to 4,500 merchants and vendors lost their jobs and scarce savings in the fire. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the victims were youth, and the majority was female, most drawn from the millions of marginalized poor who go daily into the streets of Peruvian cities to earn a few cents or buy cheap goods.
No lessons have been learned.
Three days ago a part of the mega shopping district caught fire again. As flames ngulfed one of the buildings more than 200 fire-fighters rushed to the scene. As of yesterday parts were still smouldering. Thankfully this time no-one was hurt, but it shows nothing has improved. According to a chief fire-fighter, putting out the fire was made difficult as all of the fire exits were heavily chained and padlocked. His men were unable to enter some parts of the building as corridors were blocked with huge boxes and some rooms filled entirely with them. Hundreds of illegal electricity connections had been found, with badly insulated cables strung across ceilings and walls next to these hundreds of flammable boxes, thought to be the cause of this fire.
Yesterday Peru’s Public Ministry announced it would, with help from Peru’s National Police, start inspecting and closing down shopping centres which could put shoppers’ lives in danger. Unfortunately, those who making a living selling their goods in places such as the Mesa Redonda prepare for inspections by removing the danger for and only for inspection day.