PUERTO PRÍNCIPE, Haiti – A fire swept through an uncredited orphanage in Haiti led by a Christian group based in Pennsylvania, killing at least 17 children, the social welfare authority said on Friday.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, but an official said investigators are focusing on a lit candle that is used to light during a blackout. The energy shortage is chronic in Haiti, among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, but it has worsened in recent weeks.
The Pennsylvania group was not authorized to operate the orphanage, said Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, general director of the Institute for Social Welfare and Research, which oversees social welfare programs and is responsible for issuing accreditations.
"It's a very sad situation," said Villedrouin, who had cited the candle as the main investigative theory.
The orphanage, in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, is run by the Church of Biblical Understanding, a group that describes itself as a small Christian community with a presence in New York, Florida and California along with Pennsylvania, and a participation in Haiti since 1977.
The group did not immediately respond to requests for comments sent to their email address and left a voicemail message at their office in Scranton, Pa. A woman who answered the phone in the group's office in Haiti refused to Comment and did not identify.
By Friday afternoon, dozens of people, including former residents, were on the grounds of the three-story orphanage, its upper floors obscured by smoke. The orphanage staff had been taken to a local police precinct for questioning, while the surviving children had been relocated to another orphanage.
Gardy Charles, 36, who said he had spent 25 years at the orphanage, was one of those who stopped. "The whole country has been raised by this orphanage," he said about the generations of children who had lived there.
According to their On the website, the group opened its first orphanage in Haiti about four decades ago with six children, and now runs two orphanages with about 150 children and supports others with weekly food deliveries. Orphanage residents range from babies to young adults, the group said.
"The most central part of our work in Haiti is to rescue children," the group said on its website. "Sometimes we hear about a seriously ill child during our food distributions, other times, unfortunately, they have been abandoned at our door or in a neighboring area, and occasionally they come through referrals from friends or people who work with us."
The work is funded by donors and commercial operations, according to the group's website.
The orphanage is one of the 754 operating in the country, said Villedrouin, although only 35 of them are accredited by the government. She said authorities have closed 160 uncredited centers in the past five years.
The installation led by the Church of Biblical Understanding, added Mrs. Villedrouin, "should have been closed."
According to The Associated Press, the Church of Biblical Understanding lost accreditation of its orphanages in Haiti several years ago due to unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, along with inadequate training of its staff.
Although these homes are often referred to as orphanages, many of the children who go through them are not technically orphans but are sent there by parents too poor to support them.
In 1985, a judge in Manhattan He ordered the group to stop housing fugitives and other unaccompanied children in their buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn because they had not obtained a license from the state Department of Social Services.
Several months earlier, state officials who visited the buildings had found runaway children living in miserable conditions.
Haiti has suffered problems for a long time with its electricity supply. But a contractual dispute between a private power company and the government has made things worse in recent months, leaving fringes of the capital and the rest of the country in frequent darkness.
The energy emergency is part of a broader political and economic crisis that has ravaged Haiti for almost two years and has included frequent, sometimes violent, street protests calling for the impeachment of President Jovenel Moïse.
The Christian group owns Olde Good Things, an architectural recovery operation with stores in New York City and Los Angeles. Store revenues support the group's work in Haiti, according to the company's website.
Harold Isaac reported from Port-au-Prince and Kirk Semple from Mexico City.