PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — A British Columbia groom and a nine-year-old boy were among five Canadians killed Sunday in a powerful gas explosion that ripped through the lobby of a Mexican resort hotel, blasting chunks of flooring through the roof.
Francisco Alor, attorney general of the state of Quintana Roo, where the resort is located, confirmed that five Canadians and two Mexicans were killed in the blast at the 676-room Grand Princess Riviera Hotel in the city of Playa del Carmen around 9:30 a.m.
Initial investigations were focusing on the possibility that naturally released gas from a nearby swamp had built up under the hotel and somehow ignited. Officials at the resort said no gas lines were located in the area where the blast occurred.
Jesus Puc, director of the civil protection agency, said the Canadians killed were a nine-year-old boy and three men between 25 and 30 years old. Authorities later confirmed a 51-year-old Canadian woman had also died.
One of the victims was Malcolm Johnson, a realtor with Coast Realty in Nanaimo, B.C., who travelled to Mexico last week to get married, his friend David Komo said in an interview.
“He got married a couple of days ago. His wife and daughter were down there with him,” Komo said, his voice breaking with emotion.
“His daughter is one year old.”
Barry Hoffman of Edmonton said his sister, Darlene Ferguson, 51, was also killed in the blast. He was not prepared to comment further.
The explosion left a crater a metre deep inside the building. It also blew out windows and hurled pieces of stone paving and glass shards about 50 metres onto the palm-fringed lawn of the compound.
Hours after the blast, Carson Arthur, of Toronto said he was still shaking. He said the explosion was so powerful that it sucked the air ’out of every open door, every room and then pushed back at a huge rate.“
“The velocity of the air coming back was incredible, so people were thrown around all over the place in the rooms and hallways,” said the 39-year-old man who was on vacation with six friends.
“There were several people in the debris, there was a lot of people wounded from flying glass,” a shaken Arthur said.
The resort was packed with Canadians from various provinces, including at least one wedding and company vacation.
James Gaade, from St. Catharines, Ont., told The Canadian Press he was walking on the beach when he heard a loud explosion and saw smoke coming from the platinum lounge, a part of the resort which costs extra.
“I looked and you could see that the roof (of the restaurant) had collapsed. There was a large crater in the area, debris,” he said.
“Everyone said their hotel room shook. The glass at neighbouring restaurants all cracked and blew out. The tiki hut that was in the area, that was on fire.”
He estimated about 50 to 70 per cent of more than 2,000 guests staying at the resort were Canadians and said he’s met people from Ontario, Alberta, Winnipeg and Quebec.
More than 400 of those Canadian guests had booked their holidays with Westjet Vacation.
“Our primary concern is identifying those Westjet Vacation guests that are staying at the hotel and determining their status at this time,” Richard Bartrem, vice-president of public relations for Westjet said in an interview.
“We do have representatives on the ground at the hotel as well as we have activated grief counsellors should anybody actually need any of their services.”
Bartrem also said the company is meeting with the Canadian guests to find out how many of them want to end their vacations and return home.
“We’re in the process of securing additional aircraft in the event that there are people that are looking to get out early … we will be able to accommodate that,” Bartrem said.
Pete Travers, program director of 570 News Radio in Kitchener, Ont., was at the hotel with a large group of Canadians from nearby Waterloo. He said all 60 members of his group were accounted for.
Travers recalled hearing a huge crash before he went down for breakfast. He stepped into the hallway to find people running away from the blast site as word of an explosion rippled across the resort.
“There was quite a lot of chaos,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview.
Travers and a few other guests rushed to grab deck chairs from the pool area to use them as make-shift stretchers for the injured.
“There was blood and injuries from flying glass and debris. No way of knowing just how injured these people were,” said Travers. “I saw three or four people receiving triage, they appeared to my eyes to be tourists.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed Sunday night that five Canadians were killed at six others were injured.
“On behalf of the government and all Canadians, I offer my condolences to the family members and friends of those who lost their lives and wish a quick recovery to those who were injured,” Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a statement.
“I also extend my sympathies to everyone affected by this terrible explosion.”
By Sunday evening, military and fire service vehicles remained at the hotel and the blast site was still off limits but guests appeared to be getting over the frantic panic of the morning.
“People are sitting around the pool so it appears to some degree that life is returning to normal here as best it can,” said Travers.
But, he added a few of the Canadians he knows were making plans to cut short their stay and were planning to leave later Sunday or Monday.
Hotel staff cleared out the main building, the lawn in front of the blast site, and an adjoining building. Guests whose rooms are now off-limits are being moved to different parts of the resort. A receptionist wouldn’t provide details but said staff were working to deal with the situation as best they could.
Cheryl Harris has a 20-year-old daughter who is at the hotel with a group of friends for a wedding.
The Red Deer, Alta., resident said she first heard of the blast when her daughter sent her a message on Facebook.
“She said there had been an explosion, and she and the group she was with were safe,” said Harris. “There was rumours of deaths … and a building that had collapsed.”
Harris said she doesn’t know if the wedding, which has drawn guests from all over Alberta, will go ahead on Tuesday. She couldn’t reach her daughter on her cell phone.
“I’m just really glad that she’s safe. You don’t really realize the enormity of what has gone on,” said Harris. “When she said there was deaths, well, I’m glad they’re ok.”
The 45-year-old mother said it was somewhat of a relief to hear the blast wasn’t an intentional one.
“As long as it’s not anything drug, bomb related,” said Harris. “A gas explosion can happen anywhere.”
— By Diana Mehta and Mary Gazze in Toronto.
With files from The Associated Press