ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) – Fire roared through a supermarket on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital Sunday, and a television station reported that at least 217 people died and dozens more were injured.

The fire broke out at the Ycua Bolanos supermarket while it was crowded with Sunday midday shoppers, sweeping through the multilevel complex that houses a food court, supermarket, and parking garage.

Paraguay’s Channel 9 reported that 217 bodies had been recovered, citing rescue workers and police accounts. The government had no official toll of deaths and injuries hours after the fire erupted.

Officials were still trying to determine the cause of the fire.

Fears of a major tragedy prompted President Nicanor Duarte to visit the scene.

“This is a moment of great anguish,” Duarte said. “I’ve come here to provide support to the injured and the families of the deceased.”

Badly burned bodies could be seen as they were taken away after the fire in a scene of confusion as firefighters scrambled through smoking, charred debris.

Television footage showed several levels of the multilevel supermarket covered in soot, including a lower level parking garage. The supermarket is part of a shopping complex located in an Asuncion suburb.

One woman, her face covered with soot, sobbed as she was carried away on the shoulders of a rescue worker. Firefighters battled through smoke to get inside the market and carried other victims out one by one.

Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto ordered off-duty police and firefighters to the scene and urged hospitals to prepare for the injured.

An Associated Press photographer at the scene said hundreds of neighbors living nearby rushed to the scene, helping rescue workers carry bodies from the building and firefighters hold water hoses. Dozens of relatives crowded outside and cried as bodies were pulled out.

Some burned bodies could be seen seated upright in cars in a first-floor parking lot, blackened in the intense heat. A towering column of black smoke billowed from the pink-and-white building lined by palm trees.

Hundreds of rescue workers, bystanders and relatives stood outside the shopping complex, located in an Asuncion suburb. Brown smoke hung in the air for hours afterward.

Public Health Minister Julio Cesar Velazquez told reporters, “I have never seen a disaster like this. The firefighters were taking out, as best as they could, the bodies, the injured and people suffering from smoke inhalation. It’s horrible.”

District police commander Aristides Cabral said an explosion was reportedly heard before the fire swept through the building, causing at least one floor to collapse.

“There was an explosion inside and the heat forced the bottom floor supporting the basement to give way crushing dozens of people,” he said.

Francisco Barrios, a man who was shopping in the store but managed to get out after the fire, described a confusing scene minutes after the fire started with people rushing for the doors.

“There were sparks as if fireworks were going off. The store quickly caught fire and filled with smoke, triggering total confusion,” he said, crying. “I lost my wife and kids as I rushed to get out. Now I’m desperately trying to find them.”


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