Explosion kills at least 180, injures hundreds more, 13 arrested for looting

By HARVEY RICE   |   April 22, 1992

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- A series of gas explosions ripped through the historic center of Guadalajara Wednesday killing more than 180 people and injuring hundreds more, officials said.

More than 13 people were reported arrested for looting.

Seconds before evacuating the Jalisco state governor's palace in downtown Guadalajara because of a strong smell of gas Wednesday night, Enrique Munoz, press spokesman at the governer's office, put the death toll at 182.

At Guadalajaran police headquarters, Cmdr. Enrique Ibarra Zuno said 184 people were dead.

The alleged looters were detained Wednesday night, state attorney general Leobardo Parios Guzman told official news agency Notimex, as explosions, the first of which came in the downtown area at 10 a.m., continued well into the night. Three fresh blasts were felt in the east of the city between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Notimex reported that there was still a strong smell of gas along the Calzada Independencia street where the first blast occurred. With explosions spreading authorities were deciding whether to seal off any more areas.

Although state governor Guillermo Cosio would only say the number of missing was 'considerably more than 200 or 300,' Red Cross officials said the figure was much higher.

'We have about 600 here (at the Red Cross) although there are more in other hospitals,' said Oscar Mejia.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari toured the blast site before supervising rescue efforts.

On Tuesday evening, residents of the area reported a foul-smelling odour in to police and fire chiefs.

'I called yesterday when there was a smell of gas but they said there was no problem,' said a sobbing Jesus Monuz Garcia whose mother, brother, sister-in-law and three children died in the blast.

Authorities, however, said they checked the area's water and sewer systems over a 25-mile square area but found nothing.

'The chief of the fire department said it was under control but it wasn't,' police administration director, Francisco Barbaso, told a news conference late Wednesday.

The first explosion occurred at around 10 p.m. and flattened 20 blocks of houses on Calzada Independencia street in the center of Mexico's second biggest city, Radio Red reported.

Reporters at the site, 300 miles northwest of the capital, said the first shock, which could be felt almost three miles away, was quickly followed by smaller blasts. Explosions were still taking place well into the afternoon, Notimex reported.

Authorities immediately evacuated the area and made an urgent call for blood donors. More than 4,500 people were involved in the massive rescue operation as the city was brought to a standstill by police road blocks set up to stop cars entering the area.

Defense Minister Javier del Real said the military had implemented an emergency plan and that 400 soldiers had assumed control of the rescue effort. Twenty helicopters were brought in to ferry the injured to hospital.

Temporary shelter for people made homeless in the blast will be set up in the Olympic Stadium in the west of city, Notimex said.

Gov. Cosio called for calm and asked residents to help emergency workers.

'I want to ask the people to help us in any way and not to do anything that will cause any confusion,' said the visibly shaken Cosio.

According to Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, the blast occurred when the gas hexanol, an extremely volatile mixture of alcohol, chloroform and ether, escaped from the local oil-lubricant factory 'La Central.' The gas then reached the city's sewer system and exploded when it mixed with air.

A spokeswoman for PEMEX denied any suggestion the blast was caused by a PEMEX product by saying the company 'has absolutely no responsibility for the explosion.'

Television pictures from the scene showed rows of flattened houses, huge holes in the ground and broken, twisted pavements. Eyewitnesses said cars were thrown into the air by the force of the blast.

Electricity and telephone lines in the area were down and all gas stations in the area were closed.

A U.S. embassy spokesman said all staff working at the consulate and library in Guadalajara had been sent home 'as a precaution.' No damage or injuries were reported at a U.S. Information Service building located eight blocks from the blast site, nor at the consulate, 20 blocks away.

'We are still trying to find out what we can but there are no reports of any injuries (of U.S. citizens) and we have no reason to suspect any,' the spokesman said.

The blast is the nation's worst since November 1984 when hundreds were killed by a gas explosion in Mexico City.

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