By Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A fire that ripped through an overcrowded home for abused children in Guatemala killed at least 30 people, mostly girls, and doctors on Thursday described their shock at the severity of the burns suffered by two dozen more hospitalized victims.
"I've been doing this for 29 years. What I saw yesterday was a scene from Dante," said Juan Antonio Villeda, director of the San Juan de Dios hospital, where 17 patients with extremely serious first- and second-degree burns were being treated.
The fire broke out on Wednesday as some residents allegedly set mattresses ablaze following an escape attempt from the government-run Virgen de Asuncion home for youths aged up to 18, in San Jose Pinula, 25 km (15 miles) southwest of the capital, Guatemala City.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the fire was started by a group that authorities had isolated after the escape attempt on Tuesday night.
Guatemala has Latin America's worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha prey on minors, making it an often dangerous place to grow up. The Central American nation's public institutions are underfunded, racked by corruption and widespread overcrowding.
Criticism is mounting about conditions in the home, which housed boys and girls. Presidential spokesman Heinz Heimann said victims of abuse were mixed in with juvenile offenders in what he criticized as open living arrangements. Parents alleged abuse at the center, including rape, and said gangs operated there.
More than 500 minors were in the home in a wooded area outside the semi-rural town of San Jose Pinula, although Guatemalan media said its capacity was 400.
Doctors announced eight deaths overnight of residents of the home who had been treated for injuries at hospitals in Guatemala City, and said some 24 more were in critical condition.
"In my 13-year career I have never seen injuries like this. It is tragic," said Carlos Soto, director of the Roosevelt hospital, describing severe burns to their lungs, throats and skin.
(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott)