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Costa Rica hospital fire kills 18

At least 17 patients and a nurse have died in a pre-dawn blaze at a busy hospital in Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, firefighters say.
Patients in neurosurgery and intensive care wards at the five-storey Calderon Guardia hospital were trapped by flames, fire chief Hector Chavez said.

Scores of patients, some of whom had escaped on ropes made of bedsheets, were transferred to other hospitals.

The Latin American state has declared three days of national mourning.

Promising an inquiry into hospital fire safety, President Abel Pacheco said he was "shaken".

"This is a painful scene and it is terrible," he told reporters.

Evacuation effort

The cause of the blaze, which started at 0223 (0623 GMT), is not yet known though unconfirmed reports talked of a gas leak.

It took firefighters three hours to bring the flames under control.

Nurses broke windows to try to help people escape and firefighters used ladders to bring patients down from the upper floors.

TV footage showed dozens of patients lowering themselves from windows using bed sheets.

Ambulances, taxis and private vehicles were used to transfer the patients to nearby hospitals, Mr Chavez told Channel 7 Television News.

Firefighters warned that the death toll could rise as they searched through the charred areas.

'Terrible' moment

The fire is thought to have started in the oldest part of the hospital, where its archives and outpatient services were located.

"I was with my mother on the fifth floor... it was terrible," Luz Marina Chinchilla told reporters. "A nurse shouted and set off the alarm."

Dr Eduardo Saenz, who smelled smoke while he was on duty, said he carried out the patient he had been treating in his arms.

Other patients reported hearing people shout for help as smoke filled the wards and windows broke.

Calderon Guardia is one of Costa Rica's oldest and most important hospitals, taking patients from all over the country.

Firefighters had been carrying out regular drills since a small fire occurred in the same hospital several months ago.

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