November 30, 2004

Thirteen Children Die in Honduras Fire

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Honduran children hunting rabbits who were running from a burning sugarcane field were caught in the blaze themselves. Thirteen youngsters were killed, and a man and a 14th child were severely burned.

Workers set the fire Monday night as part of the harvest on 40 acres of the Choluteca sugar company in Santa Cruz, 100 miles south of the capital, Tegucigalpa, Security Ministry spokesman Leonel Sauceda said.

The children, who ranged in ages from 5 to 17, were in a nearby field, waiting to catch the rabbits as they escaped the fire. But the blaze spread out of control and trapped them, Sauceda said.

"The wind spread the fire rapidly," he said.

Firefighter Mario Velasquez said the sudden change confused the children, who began stripping off their clothes as they mistakenly ran toward the fire rather than away from it.

Eleven of them died immediately; two died in a hospital.

Workers did not know the children were nearby until they heard their screams and family members ran to rescue them, Sauceda said.

Relatives of the victims sobbed as the charred bodies were laid out on a concrete floor Tuesday, then lowered under white sheets into coffins. Most of the 500 residents of Santa Cruz, a poor town on the border with Nicaragua, work as laborers in the sugar industry.

Emil Hawit, Honduras chief prosecutor for environmental affairs, said authorities were investigating to see if the company that owned the field, Azucarera Choluteca, could be accused of negligence. No formal charges had been filed in the case, however.

"Even though it's true the poverty of these people caused the tragedy, we should also determine if the company is at fault," Hawit said.

Azucarera Choluteca general manager Braulio Cruz said the mill did nothing wrong, adding that the burning of the fields had been planned months in advance. But he said that "the accident obligates us to improve the process of cutting cane."

President Ricardo Maduro met with families of the victims and said he would study whether the sugarcane fields really needed to be burned, a common practice used to clear a field of snakes and debris before harvest.

"We will do everything necessary so that similar tragedies don't happen in this country," he said. "This entire community is in pain, and it is really sad."

Velasquez said officials in the future would post guards around sugarcane fields before setting them on fire, an effort to keep residents away from the flames.

In the United States, notices are posted before most burns, and warnings are played over a loudspeaker in both Spanish and English to clear anyone from a field.

Still, in March, 2003, five illegal immigrants were killed while sleeping in a sugarcane field in Texas while on their way to a cousin's home in New York state.

In Honduras, the danger results from poor residents near the fields hunting wild animals trying to escape the flames.

Eight sugar refineries operate in Honduras, including two in the south that cultivate 44,500 acres and employ 20,000 people. The harvest began last week and usually continues until June.