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Nation & World

Colombia probes bus fire that killed 33 children

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian authorities have detained a bus driver and are questioning him in the deaths of 33 children who were killed when the overcrowded vehicle bringing them home from Sunday school caught fire.

Luz Estella Duran, mayor of the village of Fundacion where Sunday's tragedy took place, said witness accounts suggest the driver may have left the vehicle running with the children on board when he got out of the bus to fill its tank from a portable gas container.

The death toll rose to 33 on Monday when a 7-year-old died in a hospital in the city of Barranquilla with burns on 92 percent of his body. Nineteen other victims are also hospitalized, with about half in delicate state.

President Juan Manuel Santos interrupted a busy final stretch of campaigning ahead of May 25 elections and traveled Sunday night to the town near the Caribbean coast to pay his respects to the mostly poor families of the victims. He called for a thorough investigation to prevent such a senseless tragedy from ever occurring again and declared a national day of mourning.

"Yesterday I saw the pain of the mothers and fathers," Santos said in an interview Monday with Blu Radio in Bogota.

The children, ranging in ages from 1 to 12, were traveling home from Sunday school classes at an evangelical church, Duran said.

Nelson Tapias, a 54-year-old merchant in the town, said he lost his granddaughter as well as several nephews in the accident.

"I have my heart torn apart in six pieces," Tapias told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

Manuel Solis, a fruit vendor, lost his grandson.

"What's the most painful and strange is that it was the first time Jesus was going to the church," Solis said.

Authorities have not said where the driver, identified as Jaime Gutierrez, was being held, for fear he could be harmed by outraged residents in the rural town of 80,000.

Gen. Carlos Mena, the highway police commander overseeing operations in Fundacion, said that the driver was operating the bus without a license, recent vehicle inspection or mandatory insurance.

Family members were being taken to the nearby city of Barranquilla to help forensic specialists carry out DNA testing to identify the victims. The process could take up to two days, Mena said.

As investigators collected the bodies on Sunday, placing them in white bags and metal containers, police had to hold back residents, some bursting with rage.

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