LIMA, Peru — Earlier this month, as a fire smoldered in a movie theater attached to a popular shopping mall, an exhausted fire chaplain sought refuge from the sweltering heat in the shade of a tree. After removing his heavy jacket, he clasped his hands behind his back and began to pray the rosary for the victims and for the firefighters still smothering the smoky blaze.
Unbeknownst to the friar, a photographer from the Expreso newspaper snapped a photo of the poignant moment. The image of this “mysterious firefighter” was published in the paper the next day, Nov. 17, and quickly spread on social media, reaching well beyond Lima’s Miraflores district, where the fire took place. Aciprensa, the Spanish-language version of the Catholic News Agency, published the photo again on Nov. 18, with an article about the fire and the friar-chaplain caring for those affected by it. The photo of the “mysterious firefighter” went viral.
The identity of this mysterious firefighter? Christopher Dunn, OFM, who serves as chaplain to Company 120 of the San Juan de Miraflores district and the 24th Division – Lima South, composed of five battalions and 18 companies.
The past two months have been painful for Chris and the fire department. The fire at the movie theater killed four workers. Last month, he was called to a factory fire that claimed the lives of three young volunteer firemen.
As chaplain, Chris was tasked with the difficult role of comforting the firefighters and the families of those who died. “I am with them, I pray with them, I accompany them, I encourage them,” he told Aciprensa, following the Nov. 16 fire. A firefighter must have “strong faith,” he said, because they must “live on the edge of death every day.”
“This has been a terrible two months with several huge fires in Lima,” he added. “I have been called out more in the last two months than for a normal year.”
Hellish Movie Theater Blaze
The fire that broke out in the movie theater earlier this month was described as “hell” by the Expreso newspaper. On Nov. 16, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., had scheduled an advanced screening of the film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in the 11-theater UVK movie complex located in LarcoMar, a commercial mall carved into the cliffs of Lima’s Miraflores district overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The movie theaters, the parking lots, and some of the stores are located in underground “caves” in the cliffside.
Just before the 10:30 a.m. screening for special guests, movie critics and the press, the electric cables in one projection room overheated and caused a fire to spread up the cables to the ceiling panels. The panels across three theaters caught fire and began dropping down onto the seats and rugs.
“The fire rapidly became very hot and very smoky,” said Chris, who has been a member of the fire department since 2008. “Many workers were trapped in an administrative center that UVK had built as an expansion without a building permit or safety approval.”
The main entrance to the theater complex was gated shut because the screening was not a public event. In the midst of the extreme heat and smoke, cleaning workers, administrative personnel, and the invited guests evacuated through side doors that led to other areas of the mall that are located underground. Some people were able to break down the main doors of the complex, according to Chris.
“At noon, my Lima South battalion chief called me to the fire,” he said. “When I arrived, there were unconfirmed rumors of four dead, two firefighters unaccounted for, and possibly 15 workers trapped in the maze of offices and corridors in the illegal add-on section.”
Though most of the fire was extinguished, the smoke continued to billow in huge columns reaching up to the sky. It was a hot, sunny day, making the firefighters’ work that much more difficult. After visiting with the families of those who were unaccounted for and checking on the firefighters, Chris entered the building with a team of firefighters, along with a man who thought his wife was trapped in the illegal administrative area.
“We descended past the food court and into the parking area,” Chris said. “However, I had to turn around because I did not have a breathing mask. The heat and smoke were too intense.”
The man who was searching for his wife was evacuated later due to smoke inhalation. His wife was found safe.
Meanwhile, an exhausted Chris walked back up to the street level. Moving to a shady area, he took off his heavy jacket and began to pray the rosary. That’s when his photo was taken by the photographer from Expreso. Chris says he has received email comments from people who have seen the photo from “all over,” including Mexico.
As for those affected by the fire, all the trapped workers were freed and all of the firefighters were eventually accounted for. There were four deaths, Chris said — three UVK cleaning workers and one UVK supervisor. President Barack Obama and other dignitaries were scheduled to stay at the Marriott Hotel across the street from the shopping mall the following day. The fire did not affect their visit.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Last month, on Oct. 18, a large fire broke out in an industrial zone in El Agustino, an area located close to downtown Lima. The fire started around 7 p.m. in a shoe factory and spread to adjoining buildings, including the Ministry of Health’s warehouse for medicines, according to Chris, who until earlier this year was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish.
During the initial search and rescue operations, three volunteer firefighters from the company Roma 2 died in an explosion around 11 p.m. One of the men who died was the nephew of the incident commander, the firefighter responsible for handling all aspects of the emergency team’s response. The Peruvian Fire Corps has not had an incident with multiple line-of-duty deaths since 1931, according to Chris.
“The fire department called me at 4:30 a.m. to inform me that they had ‘lost’ three firefighters in the fire,” Chris said. “I went to the station and then to the fire. I was able to attend to family members and firefighters at the scene.
“The bodies were found in the rubble around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and we were able to remove them around 2 p.m., after the police and coroner finished their investigations. I did a brief blessing before the bodies were moved to the morgue.”
Chris asked for prayers for the three men — Lt. CBP Alonso Salas Chanduví, 25, Sub-Lt. CBP Eduardo Porfirio Jiménez Soriano, 26, and Sub-Lt. CBP Raúl Sánchez Torres, 35 — as well as for their families and the Peruvian Fire Corps.
“Being a firefighter is a form of distinct service and mercy, of helping those in a difficult situation,” Chris told Aciprensa. “What has filled my heart is to see the service that the firefighters perform in these extreme situations.”
“Although the fire department is very poor and does not have a lot of equipment, the heart of its members is very large,” he added.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.
- “Firefighter Chaplain Responds to Tragedy at Peruvian Mall“— Nov. 21, 2016, EWTN News
- “After 15 Years, Peru Chapel Dedicated by Bishop” — Nov. 10, 2016, HNP Today
- “Celebrating 50 Years of Franciscan Ministry in Peru” – Dec. 23, 2014, HNP Today
- “Peru Firehouse Equipment Dedicated to Mychal Judge” — May 14, 2014, HNP Today
- “Lima-based Friar Helps with Crisis in Bolivia” — Feb. 9, 2011, HNP Today