Police officers stand next to the remains of a bus that caught fire an interprovincial bus station in a populous district north of Lima and left 20 people dead on March 31, 2019. At least 20 people were killed and about a dozen injured Sunday night in a bus fire at a Peruvian transport terminal, the emergency services said. Luka GONZALES / AFP

An inferno swept through a bus at an illegal transport terminal in Lima, killing 17 people trapped inside in one of Peru’s worst fire disasters in over a decade, the state prosecutor’s office said Monday.

Most of the victims were trapped on the upper deck of the interprovincial bus in Lima as it prepared to depart the controversial Fiori terminal, fire chief Mario Casaretto said.

“Everyone became trapped in the stairwell leading to the first level when they wanted to get down from the upper level,” Casaretto said.

Onlookers described scenes of panic and cries of terror as flames engulfed those inside.

A grief-stricken Jose Alberto Olivos told local television that he had lost six family members including his wife, children and grandchildren.

“The car was burning, so I ran up and the people, seeing that it was burning, were coming down and I wasn’t able to save my family,” he said.

Much of the vehicle was reduced to a charred metal frame and the corpses of some victims could still be seen in the seats. Others were asphyxiated by smoke on the stairway connecting the upper and lower levels.

Peru’s Transport Chaos

The tragedy reflected the chaos of Peru’s public transport system, particularly in the capital of 10 million people where authorities are overwhelmed by transport problems.

Initial reports said an electrical fault at the rear of the bus triggered the blaze just after 7:30 pm (0030 GMT).

A local mayor suggested that the bus was carrying fuel on the upper deck, where the blaze is reported to have started. The driver and his assistant were held by police for questioning.

Fiori was operating illegally after local authorities closed it in January 2018 for the unauthorized sale of fuel to public buses.

Lima mayor Jorge Munoz said illicit fuel selling was still going on in the terminal. “It seems that, on the second floor of the bus, they were taking fuel” in containers.

Munoz visited the injured in hospital and announced an investigation to punish those responsible.

“I am totally outraged,” he said, recalling that insecurity and other problems had led to the closure of the Fiori terminal last year.

Initially the fire department said at least 20 people had perished in the blaze, but the figure was revised downwards after firefighters had combed through the burnt-out bus.

“At 4:00 am local time the team of prosecutors and six doctors concluded the removal of 17 bodies,” the prosecutor’s office said on Twitter.

Among the dead were four children. Thirteen adults — five women and eight men – also died.

Seven other passengers were injured in the blaze and taken to hospitals.

Lack of Oversight

An AFP photographer witnessed one woman weeping, her face buried in her hands, while paramedics checked her.

Another survivor, Juan Alarcon, said people were running out of the bus “and I also started to go out and save myself as best I could, and I got out, but it was full of smoke.”

The station is in Lima’s populous northern San Martin de Porres district, from where the bus was to depart on a 470-mile (750 kilometer) trip to the northern city of Chiclayo.

Julio Chavez, the mayor of the local municipality, said that although the terminal had been closed, several bus lines continued to use it because of lack of oversight by the public transport authorities.

“There has been neglect on the part of the authorities,” said Chavez, adding that the country’s transport ministry would have to assume its responsibilities.

The fire was one of the worst in Lima since December 2001, when a fireworks blast caused a market blaze that killed about 300 people.