February 14, 2020
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A fire swept through an orphanage run by a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group in Haiti, killing 13 children, including infants, health care workers said Friday. Rose-Marie Louis, a child-care worker, told The Associated Press that she saw 13 children’s bodies being carried out of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
Marie-Sonia Chery, a nurse at the nearby Baptist Mission Hospital, confirmed that 13 boys and girls had died. Louis, who worked at the orphanage, said the fire began around 9 p.m. Thursday and firefighters took about 1.5 hours to arrive. About seven were babies or toddlers and about six were roughly 10 or 11 years old, she said.
She said the orphanage had been using candles for light due to problems with its generator and inverter. Rescue workers arrived at the scene on motorcycles and didn’t have bottled oxygen or the ambulances needed to transport the children to the hospital, said Jean-Francois Robenty, a civil protection official.
“They could have been saved,”‘ he said. ”We didn’t have the equipment to save their lives.” Robenty said officials believed other children’s bodies remained inside and emergency workers were trying to pull them out Friday morning.
Orphanage workers on the scene said they believed two bodies were still inside. The Associated Press has reported on a long-standing series of problems at two orphanages run by the Church of Bible Understanding.
The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its orphanage after a series of inspections beginning in November 2012. Haitian inspectors faulted the group for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and not having enough adequately trained staff.
Members of the religious group were selling expensive antiques at high-end stores in New York and Los Angeles and using a portion of the profits to fund the orphanage. The Associated Press made an unannounced visit to the orphanage’s two homes, holding a total of 120 kids, in 2013 and found bunk beds with faded and worn mattresses crowded into dirty rooms. Sour air wafted through the bathrooms and stairwells. Rooms were dark and spartan, lacking comforts or decoration.
The Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, operates two homes for nearly 200 children in Haiti as part of a “Christian training program,” according to its most recent nonprofit organization filing. It has operated in the country since 1977. It identifies the homes as orphanages but it is common in Haiti for impoverished parents to place children in residential care centers, where they receive lodging and widely varying education for several years but are not technically orphans.
“We take in children who are in desperate situations,” the organization says in its tax filing for 2017, the most recent year available. “Many of them were very close to death when we took them in.” The nonprofit reported revenue of $6.6 million and expenses of $2.2 million for the year.
A member of the organization who identified himself only as “Jim” on a phone call referred questions on the fire to their lawyer in Haiti, whom he would not identify.
Weissenstein reported from Havana. Fox reported from Washington.