15 children are killed as fire sweeps through US-run orphanage in Haiti


 A fire swept through a Haitian children’s home run by a Pennsylvania-based religious nonprofit group, killing 15 children, officials said Friday.

Two children were burned to death and 13 died due to smoke inhalation in the blaze that ravaged the Pennsylvania-based Church of Bible Understanding’s orphanage in Kenscoff, just south of the capital. 

Rose-Marie Louis, a child-care worker at the home, said that the fire began around 9pm Thursday and firefighters took about 90 minutes to arrive. The orphanage had been using candles for light due to problems with its generator and inverter, she said.

About half of those who died were babies or toddlers and the others were roughly 10 or 11 years old, Louis said.

The cause of the blaze was not clear. One of the children at the orphanage said they had been using candles because the power in the block was out and a generator was not working.

Firefighters speak to a local judge as they point at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out the previous night in the Kenscoff area outside of Port-au-Prince. The fire killed 15 children

Firefighters speak to a local judge as they point at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out the previous night in the Kenscoff area outside of Port-au-Prince. The fire killed 15 children

Rose-Marie Louis, a staff worker at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding, holds her head in disbelief amid the charred children's home, including the unrecognizable body of a child marked by a yellow piece of paper, bottom right

Rose-Marie Louis, a staff worker at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding, holds her head in disbelief amid the charred children’s home, including the unrecognizable body of a child marked by a yellow piece of paper, bottom right

Civil protection workers stand inside a bedroom at an orphanage after it was destroyed in a fire, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Civil protection workers stand inside a bedroom at an orphanage after it was destroyed in a fire, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A pregnant woman cries after discovering her twin children died in a fire at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible. 'Orphanages' in Haiti mostly house not just orphans but children whose parents feel they cannot afford to look after them

A pregnant woman cries after discovering her twin children died in a fire at the Orphanage of the Church of Bible. ‘Orphanages’ in Haiti mostly house not just orphans but children whose parents feel they cannot afford to look after them 

A map showing the location of the orphanage in Haiti, where a Pennsylvania-based church operates two children's homes

A map showing the location of the orphanage in Haiti, where a Pennsylvania-based church operates two children’s homes

Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, director of the Institute for Social Welfare, said the religious group did not have a license to operate the institution, which housed around 60 children.

‘Orphanages’ – which in reality mostly house not just orphans but children whose parents feel they cannot afford to look after them – proliferated after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed tens of thousands.

Yet just 35 of 754 such institutions are officially authorized, with another 100 in the process of getting a license. The government has closed around 160 institutions over the last five years, Villedrouin said, and has barred more from opening.

‘We are going to place them in a transit center while we do research on their family and see if we can reunite them with their parents,’ she told Reuters.

Four in five of the around 30,000 children in Haiti’s orphanages have living parents, according to the government.

A woman who answered the Church of Bible Understanding’s telephone number in Port-au-Prince, asked for comment, said: ‘We will make it known when it is appropriate.’

Late Friday afternoon, police raided another home also run by the Church of Bible Understanding and took away several dozen children in a bus over protests from employees.

An employee looks for a place to hide the toddlers she is carrying to prevent police from removing them from another branch of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding following the fire

An employee looks for a place to hide the toddlers she is carrying to prevent police from removing them from another branch of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding following the fire

A state worker puts a child into a social services bus after her removal from another branch of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding, in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday

A state worker puts a child into a social services bus after her removal from another branch of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding, in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday

A staff worker of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding stands inside one of the bedrooms, the morning after a fire broke out at the facility in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A staff worker of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding stands inside one of the bedrooms, the morning after a fire broke out at the facility in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding walk amid the charred ruins of the burned children's home in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding walk amid the charred ruins of the burned children’s home in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A civil protection worker shovels charred debris from inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding

A civil protection worker shovels charred debris from inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding

‘I call on the relevant authorities to take urgent measures to decipher the cause of this drama,’ President Jovenel Moise wrote in a tweet, expressing his ‘profound sadness.’ 

The fire happened at the group’s orphanage in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

‘It could have been me,’ said Renadin Mondeline, a 22-year-old who lived in the home with her son, now 6, for about two years until she started making enough money as a street vendor to start renting her own place to live last year. ‘These little girls inside were just like my baby.’

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.’

A staff worker of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cries outside the children's home after the fire

A staff worker of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cries outside the children’s home after the fire

A civil protection worker searches for dead bodies inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding

A civil protection worker searches for dead bodies inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding

The Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding stands with blackened walls the morning after a fire broke out

The Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding stands with blackened walls the morning after a fire broke out

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cry outside the children's home

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cry outside the children’s home

The Associated Press has reported on a long-standing series of problems at the two children’s homes run by the Church of Bible Understanding.

‘We are aware of the fire in the children´s home in Haiti,’ said Temi J. Sacks, a spokesman for the group, which is based in Scranton, Pennsylvania. ‘It would be irresponsible for us to comment until after all the facts are in.’

The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its homes 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 vintage building fixtures like banisters and chandeliers at high-end stores in New York and Los Angeles and using a portion of the profits to fund the homes.

The Associated Press made an unannounced visit to the group’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.

A fireman stands inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out the previous night

A fireman stands inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out the previous night

A fireman inspects a room inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out

A fireman inspects a room inside the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding where a fire broke out

The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its homes 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

The Church of Bible Understanding lost accreditation for its homes 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

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cry outside the children's home, the morning after a deadly fire broke out at the facility in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Staff workers of the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding cry outside the children’s home, the morning after a deadly fire broke out at the facility in Kenscoff, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Women react on Friday after a fire destroyed part of an orphanage, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Women react on Friday after a fire destroyed part of an orphanage, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 

The Church of Bible Understanding 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. 

Nearly 60% of Haiti’s 11.2 million inhabitants survive on less than $2.40 a day, according to the World Bank.

Poverty, disability and a lack of access to basic healthcare, education and social services mean many Haitian parents send their children to orphanages or wealthier relatives or acquaintances. Those taken in by relatives are often used as servants or isolated from children in the household and seldom sent to school, critics say.

Children living in hundreds of orphanages suffer sexual and physical abuse and some are trafficked into orphanages for profit to attract donations, the London-based charity Lumos wrote in a report three years ago.

Donors, mostly from the United States and faith-based organizations, give $70 million a year to one-third of Haiti’s orphanages, it said.