15 children killed in Haiti orphanage fire

A fire swept through a Haitian children’s home run by a Pennsylvania-based non-profit group on Thursday night, killing 15 children, officials say.

Rose-Marie Louis, a child-care worker at the home, told The Associated Press that she saw 13 children’s bodies being carried out of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

About half of those who died were babies or toddlers and the others were roughly 10 or 11 years old, Louis said.

Justice of the peace Raymonde Jean Antoine said two more bodies were removed Friday afternoon.

Rescue workers arrived at the scene Thursday night on motorcycles and didn’t have bottled oxygen or the ambulances needed to transport the children to 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.”

Louis, who worked at the home, said the fire began around 9 p.m. and firefighters took about 90 minutes to arrive. The orphanage had been using candles for light due to problems with its generator and inverter, she said.

In a tweet, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse expressed his sympathies and urged authorities to fully investigate and establish a cause of the blaze.

Previous issues at charity’s facilities

The Associated Press has reported on a long-standing series of problems at two children’s homes run by the Church of Bible Understanding.

The Church of Bible Understanding 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.

People gather outside the children’s home on Friday. A child-care worker at the home told The Associated Press it took over an hour for firefighters to arrive. (Dieu Nalio Chery/The Associated Press)

The Associated Press made an unannounced visit to the group’s two homes, holding a total of 120 kids, in 2013 and found bunk beds with faded and worn mattresses crowded into dirty rooms. Sour air wafted through the bathrooms and stairwells. Rooms were dark and spartan, lacking comforts or decoration.

The Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, Pa., operates two homes for nearly 200 children in Haiti as part of a “Christian training program,” according to its most recent non-profit organization filing. It has operated in the country since 1977. It identifies the homes 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 but are not technically orphans.

“We take in children who are in desperate situations,” the organization 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 $6.6 million US and expenses of $2.2 million for the year.

A member of the organization who identified himself only as “Jim” on a phone call referred questions on the fire to its lawyer in Haiti, whom he would not identify.

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