A fire swept through a Haitian children’s home run by a US-based nonprofit group, killing 15 children, healthcare workers said on Friday.
Rose-Marie Louis, a childcare worker at the home, told the Associated Press that about half of those who died were babies or toddlers and the others were roughly 10 or 11 years old.
The fire that ravaged the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding in the Kenscoff area outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, started at about 9pm on Thursday (02:00 GMT Friday), according to Louis.
It took firefighters about 1.5 hours to arrive. The orphanage had been using candles for light due to problems with its generator and inverter, she said.
“It could have been me,” said Renadin Mondeline, a 22-year-old who lived in the home with her son, now 6, for about two years until she started making enough money as a street vendor to start renting her own home last year. “These little girls inside were just like my baby.”
Rescue workers arrived at the scene on motorcycles, lacking bottled oxygen or the ambulances needed to transport the children to the hospital, said Jean-Francois Robenty, a civil protection official.
“They could have been saved,” he said. ″We didn’t have the equipment to save their lives.”
Late Friday afternoon, police raided another home also run by the Church of Bible Understanding and took away several dozen children despite protests from employees.
The Associated Press has reported on a long-standing series of problems at two children’s homes run by the Church of Bible Understanding.
“‘We are aware of the fire in the children’s home in Haiti,” said Temi J Sacks, a spokesman for the group, which is based in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “It would be irresponsible for us to comment until after all the facts are in.”
The Church lost accreditation for its homes after a series of inspections beginning in November 2012. Haitian inspectors faulted the group for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and not having enough adequately trained staff.
Members of the religious group were selling expensive antiques at high-end stores in New York and Los Angeles and using a portion of the profits to fund the homes.
The Associated Press made an unannounced visit to the group’s two homes, holding a total of 120 children, in 2013 and found bunk beds with faded and worn mattresses crowded into dirty rooms and other signs of neglect and overcrowding.
The Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, operates two homes for nearly 200 children in Haiti as part of a “Christian training programme”, according to its most recent non-profit organisation filing. It has operated in the country since 1977.
The homes are identified as orphanages but it is common in Haiti for impoverished parents to place children in residential care centres, where they receive lodging and widely varying education for several years.
“We take in children who are in desperate situations,” the organisation says in its tax filing for 2017, the most recent year available. “Many of them were very close to death when we took them in.” The non-profit reported revenue of $6.6mn and expenses of $2.2m for the year.