Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2017.

40 Girls Die in Fire in Guatemala Shelter



FORTY TEENAGE GIRLS died in a fire on March 8 after allegedly being locked in a room as punishment at a shelter for youth in Guatemala.

Known as Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, the shelter, which sits on the outskirts of Guatemala City, houses children who have been orphaned, abandoned, or turned over by guardians who can’t financially support them. Beyond fire and life safety issues, the deadly fire renewed allegations that children were physically and sexually abused by staff at the shelter. In 2013, several of its staff members were found guilty of sexual abuse. The center was also overcrowded. Meant to accommodate 500 children, there were reportedly around 800 living there at the time of the fire.


So far, the director of the shelter and two government officials have been arrested. Each was charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty.

The fire stresses the importance of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, which ensures occupants are able to easily exit a building in the case of a fire or other threat to life safety.

“Ensuring egress doors are not compromised needs to be top priority,” said Greg Harrington, a fire protection engineer at NFPA. “Don’t be misled into thinking that security takes precedence over life safety.” An exception to the rule is detention facilities, which the Guatemalan shelter was not.

In an interview with investigators, which was obtained and reported by The New Yorker, one of the girls who survived the fire said she and about 50 other girls had been locked in a room as punishment for rioting and running away the night before. When three girls inside the room started a fire by igniting mattresses, she said the police officers guarding the room ignored the girls’ cries for help. “They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door,” the girl said. The girls who died ranged from 13 to 17.

The blaze recalls the massive 2012 prison fire that claimed 361 lives in Comayagua, Honduras, where overcrowding drove up the death toll.

While the Comayagua fire was the deadliest prison fire ever recorded, it was not an anomaly for Latin America, where scores have died in fires in overcrowded and improperly maintained prisons. In 2004, 101 died in a fire at the San Pedro Sula prison, also in Honduras. Similar to what the girl who survived the Guatemala fire described to investigators, an inmate from San Pedro Sula told The Associated Press that prisoners would keep keys and crowbars inside their cells to escape if a fire broke out because “the police would run away and leave us in here.”

São Paulo, Brazil

NFPA, São Paulo Fire Department formalize partnership

Last month, NFPA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Corpo de Bombeiros da Polícia Militar do Estado de São Paulo, or the São Paulo Fire Department (SPFD), the leading fire and life safety organization in the Brazilian state of over 44 million people. The MOU formalizes a partnership that had already existed between the two organizations.

“NFPA has had a relationship with the SPFD for over 15 years, and we are honored to not only formalize our longstanding collaboration via this MOU, but also strengthen our fire safety efforts by supporting public education and enforcement programs here,” said NFPA President Jim Pauley.

NFPA will share its guidance, research, best practices, and lessons learned from other global stakeholders with the SPFD. The MOU also encourages the sharing of fire, emergency, and incident data between NFPA and the SPFD.

Mocoa and Manizales, Colombia

Landslides devastate Colombia

As the people of Mocoa slept, a gushing river of water, mud, and boulders raced toward them. When the landslide hit the southern Colombian city in the early hours of April 1, it turned nearly everything in its path into a sludgy mess of debris, killing at least 290 people, many of them children. As of April 6, more than 300 were still missing.

Less than three weeks after the Mocoa landslide, a landslide in Manizales, a central Colombian city about 400 miles north of Mocoa, destroyed dozens of homes and killed at least 17 people, with several others missing as of April 20. Since the start of the year, landslides and floods have also plagued Peru, where about 100 people have died in the incidents.

“It is all rocks and sand,” one woman told the Guardian, describing what was left of her home after the Mocoa landslide. Government officials have blamed the natural disasters on unusually high rainfall, which caused rivers to overflow and triggered landslides, which are also known as mudslides and debris flow. Landslides are common in Central America and parts of South America. In 1985, landslides triggered by a volcanic eruption killed more than 20,000 people in the Colombian town of Armero.

NFPA has a fact sheet on landslides, which outlines the proper precautions to take before, during, and after a landslide. Visit NFPA's public education resource website for more information on preparing for disasters.

Aftermath of a landslide

Deadly Slides Hundreds have died in recent landslides in Peru and Columbia. Photograph: Getty Images

Mexico City, Mexico

2017 Fire Expo features NFPA 13, NFPA 72 training

NFPA held its 13th annual Mexico Fire Expo in Mexico City in March, and for the first time NFPA code and standard trainings were part of the agenda. The sessions provided expo attendees with training on NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

International Wildfire Conference Sessions
NFPA Conference & Expo, Boston, June 4-7, 2017

Firewise: International Lessons Learned from Wildfire Community Engagement
Monday, June 5, 8–9 a.m.

Michele Steinberg, NFPA; Lucian Deaton, NFPA; Val Charlton, Kishugu Non-Profit Company (South Africa); Andy Elliott, Dorset County, U.K.

Why Some Homes Survived: Learning from the Fort McMurray Wildfire Disaster
Tuesday, June 6, 9:30–10:30 a.m.

Alan Westhaver, ForestWise Environmental Consulting Ltd.

Prevention Planning at Different Scales in the WUI—Experience Interchange with Europe Cases
Monday, June 5, 9:30–10:30 a.m.

David Caballero, MeteoGrid (Spain)

Wildland Firefighter Safety Systems in Training and Operations: Lessons from Chile
Monday, June 5, 2–3 p.m.

Fritz Lubbe, Working on Fire (Chile); Lucian Deaton, NFPA

Each year, the Mexico Fire Expo is held in conjunction with Expo Seguridad (Security Expo) and Expo Seguridad Industrial (Industrial Security Expo). Together, the three events attract thousands, including hundreds of suppliers who showcase their products, services, and technologies aimed at protecting and managing buildings, campuses, factories, and complexes.

The NFPA 13 and NFPA 72® trainings held at this year’s Fire Expo were part of a larger effort by NFPA to hold code and standard trainings throughout Latin America, said Gaby Mazal, an international communications manager at NFPA. Over 130 such trainings have been scheduled this year in 15 countries, including 24 in Mexico. Click here to learn more about NFPA’s training efforts in Latin America.

C&E will have large international wildfire presence

More wildfire experts from outside of the United States are expected to attend this year’s Conference & Expo than ever before, according to Michele Steinberg, who heads NFPA’s Wildfire Division. Accordingly, there are four wildfire-related education sessions scheduled that will include speakers from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Chile, Spain, and Canada.

While some countries like the U.K. are similar to parts of the United States in terms of infrastructure and government, others are very different, which means their approach to dealing with wildfires is just as disparate. In South Africa, for example, there are tribal populations who can’t conceivably be reached by the fire service during a wildfire, and therefore the fire service’s strategy there is to make these populations entirely self-reliant when it comes to handling wildfires.

Steinberg said she hopes valuable lessons can be learned from other countries’ unique experiences with wildfire and vice versa. “We have a lot to learn from our counterparts in other countries,” she said. “A lot of people from different countries have also come to NFPA saying, ‘We like the Firewise program and want to bring it back to our country.’”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images