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.
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
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.
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