Number of Victims in Costa Rica Hospital Fire Rises to 19

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- The death toll from a fire that swept through three floors of a busy Costa Rican hospital rose to 19 with the discovery of another body as family members on Wednesday laid many of the victims to rest following the deadliest blaze in the country's history.

The victim, who was not identified, was found on the fifth floor, where 16 other victims also died, said Francisco Ruiz, a spokesman for the police division investigating Tuesday's pre-dawn fire. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the blaze.

The fire started in a fourth-floor supply room of the Calderon Guardia Hospital and quickly traveled to the third and fifth floors, gutting the neurology, neurosurgery and men's surgery departments. The top two floors of the five-story building were completely destroyed.

The attorney general's office released the identities of 13 victims: three women nurses, supervisor Patricia Fallas, 42, who died while trying to evacuate patients, and nurses Maria Elena Diaz and Mayra Mercado, the latter a native of Nicaragua, and 10 male patients.

Additional identifications were being delayed because some of the victims were burned beyond recognition, Ruiz said.

Some family members arrived to identify bodies at the morgue outside the capital, San Jose, while others held memorial services for their loved ones.

President Abel Pacheco called nurse supervisor Fallas a hero at a funeral service in Tres Rios, about 10 kilometers (five miles) east of the capital.

Alfonso Perez, 16, a young basketball star who was to attend a tournament in the Dominican Republic in August, died in the fire while recovering from a brain tumor operation at the hospital.

Perez was to be buried Thursday in the town of Turrialba, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of San Jose, where the streets were adorned with posters and flowers in his memory.

Like most other medical facilities in Costa Rica, the Calderon Guardia Hospital lacked an adequate evacuation plan. There were no fire hoses or emergency lighting, while two small staircases designed for evacuations only reached to the third floor, Fire Chief Hector Chavez said. An alarm failed to sound as well, Chavez said. At the time of the fire, 522 patients were at the hospital.

On Wednesday, the daily newspaper La Nacion reported that the hospital was insured against fire damages to the building, but not for losses suffered by the patients. That report could not be confirmed independently.

Some of the patients had to jump out windows or climb down secured bedsheets to escape the flames.

Costa Rican criminal lawyer Juan Diego Castro told Channel 7 that both the officials who failed to implement fire safety regulations as well as those responsible for monitoring compliance should be held responsible.

''The 19 dead represent cases of homicide,'' Castro said.

President Abel Pacheco declared three days of national mourning and announced the formation of a committee to investigate safety measures at all hospitals after state health officials asked him to declare a national emergency in the state hospital system.

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