The controversial Church of Bible Understanding headquartered in Pennsylvania is now under scrutiny after at least 17 children, including babies and toddlers, died after a fire ravaged one of two orphanages run by the religious group in Haiti, officials said Friday.
Rose-Marie Louis, one of several devastated child care workers at the home where the tragedy unfolded, told The Associated Press that the fire began around 9 p.m. Thursday and firefighters took about 90 minutes to arrive. She explained that the orphanage had been using candles for light due to problems with its generator and inverter. Some half of the children who died in the fire, she said, were babies or toddlers while the others were about 10 or 11 years old.
The AP noted that the church that was started in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1971 by founder Stewart Traill, had lost accreditation in November 2012 for its homes after Haitian inspectors faulted the group for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and not having enough adequately trained staff.
Citing the authority for social welfare in Haiti, The New York Times reported that at least 17 children were killed.
“It’s a very sad situation,” 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.
The Christian Post reached out to the church’s office in Scranton on Tuesday but no one was immediately available to discuss the fire which occurred in the Kenscoff area outside Port-au-Prince.
Temi J. Sacks, a spokesman for the group, told the AP, “We are aware of the fire in the children’s home in Haiti. It would be irresponsible for us to comment until after all the facts are in.”
Jean-Francois Robenty, a civil protection official, told the AP that the children could have been saved but rescue workers who arrived at the scene on motorcycles didn’t have bottled oxygen and ambulances needed to transport children to a hospital were also not available.
“They could have been saved,” he said. ″We didn’t have the equipment to save their lives.″
“It could have been me,” Renadin Mondeline, a 22 year old who lived in the home with her son, now 6, for about two years before getting her own place, told the AP. “These little girls inside were just like my baby.”
The CBU, which has been called a "cult," states on their website that they serve about 150 children across their two orphanages.
“The children that we take in come to us from many places and circumstances. Sometimes we learn of a gravely ill child during our food distributions, other times, sadly, they have been abandoned at our doorstep or in a neighboring area, and occasionally they come through referrals by friends or people who work with us. Currently there are around 150 children between our 2 very large houses (a slightly fluctuating number — as some become well and have families able to care for them). They range in age from infant to young adult. You can see the relief begin to show on their faces after only a short time being with us,” the group said.
On Friday, however, after protests from grieving employees at the orphanages, police raided the church’s second home and removed several dozen children, the AP said.
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti also expressed sadness at the tragedy in a tweet Friday.
“The U.S. Embassy is shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life resulting from the devastating fire at Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding in Kenscoff. We offer our deepest condolences to the loved ones of these children, whose lives were cut too short,” the embassy said.