Caracas, October, 18, 2004—A fire broke out on in the early morning hours of Sunday in Venezuela’s highest skyscraper, an important government building in downtown Caracas, destroying the top twenty of its fifty floors, including those which housed the Ministry of Infrastructure (MINFRA), the Motor Vehicle Department, and the Civil Aviation Administration.
|The Burning east tower of Parque Central, Venezuela’s tallest building|
President Hugo Chavez was on Margarita Island, transmitting his weekly “Alo Presidente” program, when he was informed by Jesse Chacon, the Minister of Interior and Justice, that the East Tower of the Parque Central building was on fire. “We have to thank the lord that no one lost their life, the material damage is reparable,” President Chavez said in his conversation with Chacon, who he asked to investigate the incident.
During the early morning hours, explosions could be heard as flammable material ignited as well as the explosion of windows that were reached by the fire. The fire roared out of control for 17 hours, by which time all floors from the 34th to the top had been burned.
|After the fire ended, nearly the top half of the skyscraper was destroyed.|
The Minister of Infrastructure, Ramón Carrizales, also went up to the site to inspect the damage to the offices that belong to his ministry. He announced that he is looking for offices in the western tower of the Parque Central as well as in other buildings in downtown Caracas to move their offices as soon as possible. According to Carrizales, “there was much valuable material – contracts, plans, administrative plans…”
Three Infrastructure Ministry employees and 14 firefighters suffered toxic inhalation, but there were no fatalities according to Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceño. However, damage to the public offices are extensive according to Juan Vicente Cabezas, President of the Simón Bolívar Center.
Neither Briceño nor Cabezas identified a cause for the fire. Breños said that there currently are three hypotheses for the cause: the storage of flammable material in the aviation administration, a short-circuit, and arson. Cabezas said that firefighters were affected by a lack of water and said that given this incident he would accelerate the purchase of a helicopter for cases such as these.
Cabezas criticized the maintenance of the building, since emergency exits were locked and many of them blocked with furniture. The elevators were also closed, which prevented firefighters from getting to the scene earlier.
Briceño said that the “direct impact was produced from floor 34 to 38 of the east tower, and the situation became critical in floor 35, where there were open explosions. The problem that we faced was the water. Parque Central does not count on minimal (fire) security requirements, which makes it difficult to execute an adequate fire extinguishing system,” Briceño said.
“It has been difficult to control the fire because the security systems, the pumps and the pipe systems of the building do not work. We have done various types of tests and some engineers have gone up in order to activate the mechanisms, but it has not been possible because proper maintenance was never done,” Briceño said.Firefighters had to use hoses with a reach of 40 stories to put out the fire due to the lack of a functioning sprinkler system in the building. Also crucial in putting out the fire were army helicopters, which unloaded water onto the side of the building, in order to cool it off and thereby prevent structural damage to it.