ASUNCION, Paraguay — Trauma and grief are still very present a month after one of the major tragedies in the history of this city that took the lives of more than 400 people, including five Church members.
On Sunday, Aug. 1, a fire in a shopping center, Ycua Bolaos, located in Trinidad on the outskirts of the city, began following an explosion.
The fire ignited after a large quantity of natural gas from a refrigeration system accumulated in the basement. Balls of fire exploded through sectors of the multi-floor supermarket, spreading death and destruction. In the extreme heat, the basement floor gave way, crushing victims beneath it. After the fire, the charred remains of more than a hundred were found, while more than 300 others died of toxic fumes and related causes. More than 200 others received serious injuries.
Among the dead were five Church members. They are: Elda Diez Gomez; Eric Almiron Benitez, 21, and his mother, Marciana Benitez de Leon, and a married couple who surname is Largo (first names are not available).
Police, firemen, neighbors and volunteers rushed to assist in the holocaust scene. Sobbing relatives had to be restrained by police as the injured were rushed to hospitals. The entire nation, which had learned about the tragedy through harsh bits and pieces of information released through the media, was shocked. Scenes of panic and grief ensued.
When it was over, a population was left to identify and bury the dead, care for the injured and deal with the trauma they had experienced in varying degrees.
Church members were quick to volunteer in the aftermath of the crisis.
Among the first to arrive was Elder Christian Young Ricks and his companion, Elder Tyson R. Young. Elder Ricks of New York City, who lost some of his friends in the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001, said, "For me, the tragedy of Asuncion was a very personal one; I saw the people with the kind of pain that I felt when the towers fell.
"As missionaries, we tried, when people shared their emotions, to speak of our faith in the plan of salvation and give them encouragement. We tried to help with more resources, but I remembered that the most important help we received in New York was emotional, so when the stake president arrived, I hugged him and encouraged him."
The burned supermarket lies within the boundaries of the Asuncion Paraguay North Stake, under the administration of President Gustavo Galeano.
"Sunday evening, we all shared the grief felt throughout the city for the more than 400 dead," he said. "We identified the Church members who died in the fire and gave help and comfort to the families. On Monday morning, we offered civil authorities donations of medical supplies and work from missionary and member volunteers, to help wherever necessary.
"I am grateful for the great work done by the youth of Asuncion, the missionaries and the many families who perceived the magnitude of the tragedy and spontaneously gave service."
Missionaries in Asuncion organized and worked with the army and health department authorities. First, they helped outside "Estadio 14 de Mayo," an army facility where the bodies of the dead were placed to be claimed by their families. They helped remove the caskets, helping in restraining lines, and distributed water and food to the volunteer firemen. Missionaries also visited those affected in the neighborhood.
"In the middle of the catastrophe, the missionaries in their white shirts with words of comfort and peace were as angels for the distressed and suffering neighbors of Trinidad," said one observer.
In the days after the tragedy, reducing the trauma became a major priority. Youth of the Asuncion Institute of Religion were organized to help with this effort. The young members and missionaries worked under the direction of psychologist Viviana Sanchez of the government's Secretary of Children and Adolescents in two primary schools, assisting both students and teachers. They played with children, sang songs, drew pictures, and acted out stories. Afterwards, one of the children came up to the missionaries and said, "The is the first time I have laughed since last Sunday."
Sisters of the Relief Society also organized and started a project to plant flowers.
Ms. Sanchez expressed her appreciation for the service. "I will never forget you," she said. "I have been given a lesson of love and service. It has been a blessing at the time when we most needed it."
After authorities determined what was needed, the Church donated $65,000 for specific medications. For this donation, Dr. Julio Velazquez, said, "I want to thank my friends of the Church, who have worked with us in various projects, to once again come forward at this difficult moment.
"Thank you for this and other donations that we have received to be able to take care of all of our citizens who were victims of this catastrophe; the medical attention has permitted the saving of many lives."
The fire at the supermarket in Asuncion has been a tragedy and suffering for the entire Paraguay community, but at the same time it has brought the whole population together in brotherhood.
"We appreciate very much working in partnership with other religious groups, and the civil authorities who brought help and support," said President Galeano. "We feel grateful to all for our small effort."