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October 24, 2014
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Nine firefighters die in Barracas blaze

An aerial view of the Iron Mountain warehouse in Barracas neighbourhood yesterday.
Tragedy strikes when wall in the warehouse of a documents archive collapses

Nine first-responder firefighters were killed and 12 injured, six of whom remain hospitalized yesterday, as they battled a fire of unknown origin that destroyed an archive of corporate and banking industry documents in the Barracas neighbourhood in Buenos Aires City.

It marked yet another tragedy in a City that is beginning to get accustomed to preventable deaths — from floods, train crashes and car accidents, plus the 194 killed after the fire in the República Cromañón night club in 2004.

The fire at the Iron Mountain warehouse took hours to control and at least half of the sprawling building was ruined despite the efforts of at least 10 squads of firefighters.

The nine firefighters were crushed when a brick wall collapsed on top of a large group of first-responders on the sidewalk and street outside. Tearful rescuers removed rubble by hand to reach their comrades.

Tragedy occurred when a group of firefighters reportedly trying to push through a gate to get inside with the fire truck — in order to put out the fire — were trapped under a high wall that suddenly collapsed.

“It took them completely by surprise,” said Security Secretary Sergio Berni. “Some of the injured are fighting for their lives.”

“I heard a noise, saw that everything was moving and then came the two crashes — I remember the cries of firefighters who saw their peers beneath the rubble,” an unidentified witness told news agency Télam.

At press time, firefighters, the Federal and Metropolitan police forces, Civil Defence and the SAME emergency service crews were still working on Azara street in southern Buenos Aires City, the site of the tragedy.

Berni said US company Iron Mountain also had employees inside the building when the fire started early yesterday, but all the employees and firefighters were accounted for by early afternoon.

The destroyed archives included documents stored for Argentine corporations and banks, said Buenos Aires City Security Minister Guillermo Montenegro.

The cause wasn’t immediately clear. Berni said the company’s on-site firefighters shared some details with authorities, and Iron Mountain said it would investigate.

“All of this will end up in court,” Berni said, declining to make any details public.

If the cause is found to be arson, it wouldn’t be a first for Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc., which manages, stores and protects information for more than 156,000 companies and organizations in 36 countries. Fire investigators blamed arson for blazes that destroyed its warehouses in New Jersey in 1997 and London in 2006, prompting rounds of legal claims over lost records.

Victims were identified as Damián Véliz, Eduardo Conesa, Maximiliano Martínez, Anahí Garnica and Juan Matías Monticelli from the Squad No. 1 of the Federal Police Firefighters, and Chief of the Zone 1 Department of the Firefighters Superintendence Leonardo Arturo Day, Berni said.

City health authorities confirmed Sebastián Campo (from the Vuelta de Rocha Volunteer Firefighters) and José Luis Méndez and Pedro Baricola (from the Civil Defence) had also died at the site.

‘We will investigate’

The multinational pledged to investigate what — it said — was a “tragic event.”

“We are deeply saddened by the deaths of the brave first-responders who rushed to save our facility. Our thoughts are also with those who have been hospitalized, and we wish them a quick and complete recovery,” Iron Mountain said in a news release.

“We will investigate the cause of the fire and work closely with local investigators, police and fire authorities to understand what happened. The building was equipped with fire-detection as well as a sprinkler system,” the company said, adding that it is contacting those of its customers whose documents were lost.

“We recognize our customers will have concerns and questions,” the company said. “We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We appreciate patience and understanding while we work through this critical period.”

Numerous hedge funds own part of Iron Mountain, including Highfields Capital Management, managed by Jonathon Jacobson, and Jeffrey Altman’s Owl Creek Asset Management.

At one point Paul Singer, CEO of Elliott Management Corporation, had a participation, but he no longer appeared to have a stake by the end of 2013.

Political reactions

The Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration yesterday declared two days of national mourning.

Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich expressed “grief and concern” for the tragedy while making the announcement yesterday at the Government House. The City imitated the move and also declared two days of mourning.

Federal and City officials appeared at the site throughout the day.

City Mayor Mauricio Macri had to cut his holidays short after hearing the news.

“It’s the saddest day in firefighters’ history,” Macri told news channel Todo Noticias (TN). First-responders “did not perform any risky procedure, suddenly the wall fell, it was just a split second,” the PRO leader added.

As the Herald went to press, a Mass in honour of firefighters and first-responders was expected to be held at the San Benito church in Palermo.

— Herald staff with AP, Télam

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