September 3, 2014

One tourist dead, another hospitalized in Chiriqui fishing lodge fire

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Ricardo Martinelli in his bombero uniform and a medal he gave himself. On his shift the years-long decline in firefighting services, including fire inspections, has continued.

Ricardo Martinelli in his bombero uniform and a medal he gave himself. During his term a years-long decline in Panama’s firefighting services, which include fire inspections, has continued. Photo by the Presidencia

Fuel tanks were stored in a building where visiting sports fishers were housed

Fire code violation kills an American tourist, hospitalizes another foreigner

by Eric Jackson

On the afternoon of January 14 a fire raced through the Panama Sport Fishing Lodge, which is next to the port of Boca Chica in the corregimiento of Hornocitos in Chiriqui’s San Lorenzo district. Frank Lee Margrave III, a 59-year-old US citizen who was lodged at the resort, was burned to death when the flames reached his room. Another visiting foreign fisher was hospitalized with burn injuries. The lodge was totally destroyed, despite the efforts of some 30 bomberos from three different fire companies.

Initial findings by fire inspectors was that the blaze started as an electrical fire in the downstairs room of the lodge that housed its generator, and that also stored in that room was the fuel used by the lodge’s fishing boats. That would be a serious fire code violation, officials have noted. Prosecutors are investigating.

One would expect that when Panama’s important tourism industry is involved, there would be fire inspections to catch such things. However, for tourist facilities and just about everything else in Panama fire inspection barely exists. It is required to hook up the electricity in a building, but one must wait for that service and even then the inspector often comes to the job ill prepared to recognize unusual hazards. It’s not just a problem with inspectors, but with firefighting services in general.

Last year’s iconic photo from Panama, taken during the course of a Panama City landfill fire for which the bomberos lacked the proper firefighting foam and leadership that understood what the problem and possible solutions were, was not just a pretty picture. It shows a bombero without proper clothing or breathing apparatus in a dangerous and futile if heroic effort amid the toxic smoke at the fire scene. Martinelli’s brain trust, such as it is, was recommending that the SPI presidential guards use explosives against the fire before somebody outside of the inner circle pointed out that these kids of fires are best fought with a certain sort of chemical foam, the supply of which Panama’s government had allowed to become depleted. After several days the right material was flown in from the United States and the bomberos put out the fire.

This fishing lodge fire may, in addition to scaring off an undetermined number of tourists, lead to more systematic fire inspections at tourist facilities. However, there are other firefighting challenges out there waiting for disasters to happen. For example, the bomberos are not equipped to fight fires in tall buildings, either in Panama City or especially the new condo towers that are beginning to line the beaches of Panama Oeste and Cocle provinces.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave the surname of the man who died as McGrave, and mis-stated his age. Somebody who knew him pointed out the errors to us.

 

 

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