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Death toll hits 38 in Mexico day-care fire

Rescuers used holes smashed in walls. There was only one exit for 142 children.

HERMOSILLO, Mexico - Sobbing relatives waited outside a morgue yesterday to claim the bodies of 38 children killed in a day-care fire in northern Mexico despite desperate attempts to evacuate babies and toddlers through the building's only working exit. A father crashed his pickup truck through the wall in an effort to rescue his child.

The family of 2-year-old Maria Magdalena Millan held a funeral for her, dropping white roses onto her tiny coffin and attaching a Dora the Explorer balloon to the cross marking her grave. One woman held a framed picture.

"I love you, and I don't want to leave you here!" her mother screamed.

Delfina Ruelas, 60, said her grandchild German Leon died of his burns yesterday morning, three days after his fourth birthday. She and her husband saw television news reports that the ABC day care was on fire Friday and rushed over that evening.

"I thought he wasn't that burned and that we would find him OK, but he was very burned," said Ruelas, dissolving into tears outside the morgue in the northern city of Hermosillo, where she waited along with 30 other relatives. "They operated on him yesterday, and he held on, but today he couldn't hold on."

Firefighters carried injured children through the front door - the building's only working exit - and through large holes that a civilian knocked into the walls before rescue crews arrived, according to a fire department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Noe Velasquez, an employee at a nearby auto parts store who helped pull out five toddlers, said the father of one of the children rammed his pickup truck through a wall. Velasquez did not know if the man's child survived.

The tragedy in Hermosillo, capital city of the northwestern state of Sonora, population about 560,000, once again raised questions about building safety in Mexico. Officials cracked down on code violations last year following a deadly stampede at a nightclub and nine years ago after a fire at a disco. Both clubs were in Mexico City.

A May 26 inspection found that the day-care building - a converted warehouse with a few windows mounted high up - complied with safety standards, said Daniel Karam, the director of Mexico's Social Security Institute, which outsourced services to the privately run day care.

Asked if the single functioning exit constituted a safety code violation, Karam only repeated that the building had passed the inspection, although he conceded that the security requirements might have to be reevaluated.

Guadalupe Arvizu, who was visiting her injured 2-year-old grandson at a hospital, said the building has an emergency exit but it could not be opened on the day of the fire. She did not know why.

"The place is in bad condition. It's a warehouse. There are no windows in the classrooms," said Arvizu, whose daughter - the boy's mother - is a caretaker at the day care but was not injured.

The death toll rose to 38 after three more children died yesterday, Sonora state health secretary Raymundo Lopez Vucovich told a news conference. He did not say how they died, but said that in general, most of the victims had died of organ failure caused by smoke inhalation.

Some of the children had third-degree burns, the Hermosillo fire department official said.

Thirty-three children remain hospitalized, 23 of them in Hermosillo, including 15 who are in critical condition, Lopez said, adding that one of them is brain dead.

A 3-year-old girl with burns over 80 percent of her body was sent by military transport to be treated at Shriners Hospital for Children Northern California, said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, consul general for Mexico based in Sacramento, Calif.

Four children have been released from the hospital, along with two of six adults who had been admitted, Lopez said. The hospitalized adults had included five of six women who took care of the children at the center, plus a security guard. The four still hospitalized are in stable condition, Lopez said.

There were an estimated 142 children in the day care at the time of the fire, their ages ranging from 6 months to 5 years, and six staffers to look after them, Bours said at a news conference yesterday.

The ratio is in keeping with legal standards, Karam said.