The death toll from a powerful explosion near the Dominican Republic’s capital rose Tuesday to 10 with dozens injured, as firefighters searched through smoldering rubble and people cried outside hospitals looking for missing loved ones.
President Luis Abinader visited San Cristobal, located just west of Sango Domingo, to meet with those affected, saying an additional 11 people were missing and that authorities were still trying to extinguish the fire amid collapsed buildings and charred vehicles.
“We’re doing everything humanly possible ... to investigate the situation of the 11 missing,” he said. “The search for survivors has been very difficult.”
At least 10 people were killed and more than 50 people were injured in Monday’s explosion at a bustling commercial center in San Cristobal, said Joel Santos, minister of the presidency. At least 36 of the injured remained hospitalized, he said.
Health Minister Daniel Rivera said authorities have still not been able to access “ground zero” where the explosion occurred because it was still burning.
Estefani Alcántara said her family was shopping when the explosion occurred. Her uncle, 42, is hospitalized with serious injuries and her aunt is still missing.
“We don’t know if she’s dead or alive,” she said with tearful eyes as she waited outside a local hospital, feeling full of “frustration, pain and distress.”
The country’s emergency telephone system said the explosion occurred at a bakery in the city’s center, a bustling area known as “Old Marketplace,” where people buy goods ranging from vegetables to clothes. The fire then spread to a hardware store next door and a nearby furniture store.
Among the victims was a 4-month-old baby who died from head trauma and a woman who worked at a bank, officials said.
José Ramón Ramírez Rivera, the owner of a local veterinary clinic, told reporters that one of his 15 employees is still missing.
“An office wall fell on top of me,” he recalled. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Juan Jiménez, a farmer who lives several miles from where the explosion occurred, said he thought it was thunder at first given the usual storms that occur in August. He is now waiting for information on his female cousin, a 31-year-old professor who remains missing.
Smoke still smothered the city’s center on Tuesday, and Rivera urged everyone to wear face masks.
“This smoke is mixed with chemicals,” he warned.
Rivera said he and other officials will go door to door to ensure that people have masks and determine whether they had any respiratory or skin problems. He also was expected to visit patients at a local hospital where people were still searching for loved ones.
“The first 24 hours are very important,” he said, adding that injuries included burns, fractures and respiratory problems.
Abinader said the government would set up two mobile hospitals to provide further treatment, including psychological services to those affected.
Meanwhile, Santos said the government is launching an investigation to determine whether the business where the explosion occurred was operating under the proper regulations.
It wasn’t clear what caused the explosion, and authorities have not provided a preliminary estimate of damages.
“These catastrophes have an order of priority: save lives, save assets, ensure that the incident is extinguished and then assess damage,” Santos said at a news conference.
San Cristobal, the birthplace of dictator Rafael Trujillo, was the site of another explosion nearly 23 years ago. An arms depot exploded in October 2000, killing at least two people and injured more than two dozen others, forcing authorities to evacuate thousands.
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