Memories of deadly 2009 nursery fire haunt Mexico

Parents, relatives and supporters hold pictures of some of the 49 children who died during a fire in a nursery in 2009 at a march in Mexico City on 5 June, 2013.

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ABC. The first few letters Mexican children learn to recite at the start of their faltering steps into reading and writing. Three symbols present on nursery walls across the country.

Yet in the city of Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, those letters signify perhaps the bitterest day in recent Mexican history.

On 5 June 2009, the ABC day-care centre in Hermosillo caught fire while dozens of babies and infants were having their afternoon siesta inside.

Daycare centre where many children died in a fire in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico on 5 June, 2009. The children were having their afternoon nap when the fire broke out

The blaze had started at a tyre depot next door and spread across the laminate roof to the adjoining nursery.

There were no emergency exits in the nursery, with the only way out through the front door.

There was no sprinkler system and no fire extinguishers, the smoke detectors and alarms were faulty, and the staff were poorly trained.

'Time bomb'

"ABC was a time bomb," one of the day-care assistants would later say.

Julio Cesar Marquez talks to Carolina Platt in her documentary, La Hora de la Siesta

Desperate parents rushed to the scene. Julio Cesar Marquez was among them, his two-year-old son, Yeye, still trapped inside the burning building.

"It was the longest day. An eternal day," he remembers, his voice breaking a little.

"We would normally pick him up by 14:00, before the siesta. But that particular afternoon, my wife and I decided to go for lunch with my two eldest sons - something which happened very rarely," he says, still haunted by the recollection.

Mr Marquez has been over that afternoon in his head a thousand times.

He describes seeing a "column of thick, black smoke, very black" over the city and the awful realisation that it was not coming from a nearby petrol station but from the nursery itself.

People stand outside a perimeter set up by police around a burning daycare centre building in Hermosillo, Mexico, on 5 June 2009 Parents saw smoke billowing from the building housing the nursery and rushed to the scene

At the scene, hysterical parents tried to climb through tiny windows and clamoured to get in.

One onlooker tried to break down the outer wall of the nursery with his truck.

It was all in vain.

'Avoidable tragedy'

In total, 49 children died and 76 were badly injured in the blaze. Yeye Marquez was among the dead.

People in Hermosillo, Mexico help to get a child out of a burning daycare centre on 5 June 2009 Residents did their best to rescue as many children as they could, but for 49, help came too late

"It was a tragedy - we call it a crime - which was completely avoidable," Yeye's father reflects five years on.

"If the nursery had had the correct security conditions in place, the smoke would have been detected much earlier and I'm sure many more children could have been saved."

Medics move a wounded child to hospital in Hermosillo, Mexico, on 5 June 2009 Seventy-six children were seriously injured in the fire

The nursery was housed inside a converted warehouse as part of a private-public partnership in which the administration of local day-care centres was outsourced by the government.

Despite its clear failings, the ABC nursery passed a government safety inspection less than two weeks before the fire.

Clamour for justice

Over the past five years, the parents of the victims have kept up the pressure on the authorities on two separate but related fronts.

Relatives of the young victims who died in 2009 in a fire at a daycare centre in the Mexican city of Hermosillo commemorate the tragic event and demand justice in Mexico City on 3 June 2012. The relatives of the victims have been demonstrating for changes in the law, but little has happened

The first is for justice for the children who perished or were injured in the fire.

Start Quote

Rather than simply forget, people have evaded it”

End Quote Carolina Platt Filmmaker

On 1 January this year, Delia Irene Botello Amante, the government official who carried out that final safety inspection of the nursery, was released from prison.

Following her release, no one - whether private individual or government official - is behind bars for the systemic failings which led to the ABC fire.

Daniel Gershenson, an activist with the pressure group 5 June Movement in Memory of the Victims, called Ms Botello's release "another link in the chain of impunity".

The other key part of the families' campaign is to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

Through their website, members of the public can report instances of dangerous nurseries which the organisation will follow up.

Uphill struggle

Despite an initial outpouring of public grief and support for the parents, changing the status quo has been an uphill struggle.

A law normalising safety standards in Mexican daycare centres, known as the 5 June Law, was passed under the previous administration.

To date, however, only five of the country's 32 states have enacted the legislation.

The BBC requested an interview with the government agency responsible for public health and safety, the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS).

So far, there has been no response either at a state or federal level.

"Perhaps the most painful thing the families hear is: 'Let the children rest in peace,'" says Carolina Platt, a filmmaker from Hermosillo who has made a documentary about the ABC tragedy called Naptime.

Lit candles and toys in a 2012 makeshift memorial to victims of a 2009 fire at a daycare centre in the Mexican city of Hermosillo Parents and relatives say they will not give up the fight for justice in memory of their children

"People insinuate that by demanding justice, by going on marches and making their voices heard, the parents aren't letting their children rest in peace and should just forget and move on. It's such a passive-aggressive attitude and the authorities have milked that sentiment."

Ms Platt has spent more time than most with the ABC families. She believes a similar tragedy could happen again at any time, partly because Mexican society "has a very short memory".

Yeye Marquez Yeye Marquez's father said the tragedy was completely avoidable

"Rather than simply forget, people have evaded it", the filmmaker says. "It's like hiding dirty plates underneath a cloth. No-one wants to talk about it."

Mr Marquez agrees. "Since 5 June 2009, a further 18 children have died in nurseries in Mexico," he says, adding that these cases have included gas leaks and basic mistakes by untrained staff.

It is a statistic which breaks his heart. It seems that almost nothing has been learnt from Yeye's death.

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