SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic (AP) — The death toll from a powerful explosion near the Dominican Republic’s capital rose to 11 on Tuesday, with dozens injured. People gathered outside hospitals as firefighters searched through the burning rubble for missing loved ones.
President Luis Abinader visited San Cristóbal, west of Santo Domingo, to meet with victims. Officials said another 10 people were missing and officials were battling to put out the fire amid collapsed buildings and charred vehicles.
“It’s very difficult to find survivors,” Abinatar said.
An explosion occurred at a bakery on Monday afternoon, with authorities investigating what caused the explosion as they vowed to take action if a business does not perform up to standards.
At a news conference Tuesday night, emergency operations center director Juan Manuel Mendez said responders had found the remains of unidentified people inside a building, but were awaiting forensics to determine the body count.
More than 50 people were injured in Monday’s blast The blast ripped through a busy commercial center Officials in San Cristobal said. At least 36 of the injured have been hospitalized, Presidential Minister Joel Santos said.
Estefany Alcantara said her family was shopping when the explosion occurred. His uncle, 42, was hospitalized with serious injuries and his aunt is still missing.
“We don’t know if she’s dead or alive,” she said with teary eyes as she waited outside a local hospital, feeling “desperation, pain and grief.”
Meanwhile, Jeni Benzon de los Santos said her sister and baby niece died in the explosion and her father was missing. “They wouldn’t let me into the mortuary to see if I could identify my father,” he said.
The country’s emergency telephone system said the explosion occurred at a bakery in the center of the city, a busy area known as the “old market” where people buy everything from vegetables to clothes. The fire then spread to a nearby hardware store and a nearby furniture store.
More than 500 first responders and officials responded to the explosion, which destroyed four buildings and damaged nine others, Mendez told reporters.
Officials said the dead included a 4-month-old baby who died of head injuries and a woman who worked at the bank.
Jose Ramon Ramirez Rivera, owner of a local veterinary clinic, told reporters that one of his 15 employees was still missing.
“An office wall fell on top of me,” he recalls. “I can’t breathe.”
Juan Jimenez, a farmer who lives several miles away, said at first he thought it was thunder, given the typical August storms. He is now waiting for information from his missing female relative, a 31-year-old professor.
Smoke still hung over the city center on Tuesday, and Health Minister Daniel Rivera urged everyone to wear masks. “Chemicals are mixed into this smoke,” he warned.
Rivera and other officials went door-to-door, making sure people were wearing masks and determining whether they had respiratory or skin problems. He visited patients at a local hospital where people were still searching for loved ones.
“The first 24 hours are critical,” he said, adding that injuries include burns, broken bones and breathing problems.
Abinadar said the government would set up two mobile hospitals to provide further treatment, including psychological services, to the victims.
Meanwhile, Santos said the government was launching an investigation to determine whether the business where the explosion occurred was operating under proper regulations.
It was unclear what caused the explosion, and officials did not provide an initial estimate of the damage.
“These disasters have an order of priority: save lives, save property, make sure the incident is extinguished and assess the damage,” Santos told a news conference.
San Cristóbal, the birthplace of dictator Rafael Trujillo, was the site of another eruption nearly 23 years ago. A weapons depot exploded in October 2000, killing at least two people and injuring more than two dozen, forcing authorities to evacuate thousands.
Cotto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.