“It was like an earthquake, I thought a bomb had gone off.” That was one witness’s account of the explosion that ripped through a building in central Madrid at 2.56pm on Wednesday, at number 98 Toledo street – just a kilometer from the landmark square Plaza Mayor and 15 minutes on foot from the central Puerta del Sol.
The seven-story building was destroyed in the blast, leaving at least four people dead and 10 injured. According to source from the emergency services, all the evidence points to a gas boiler that exploded. The building in question was the Church of the Virgen de la Paloma parish center. It contains office space, a shelter run by the charity group Cáritas, a meeting room, a living room and three housing units for priests.
A strong smell of gas was detected in the building at around 2pm, spreading throughout the seven floors. One of the priests who was present, according to sources from the archbishopric, called a well-known electrician from the parish, David Santos Muñoz. On arrival, the 35-year-old started to inspect “several” boilers that were located in the building. Minutes later the explosion took place, blowing out one of its facades. The emergency services confirmed at 7pm on Wednesday that Santos Muñoz had died in the incident. He was married and had four children. Two other men died in the blast but their ages have not been confirmed.
Another priest, aged 36, was confirmed on Thursday morning to have died after being injured in the explosion. Another 10 people were left with injuries by the huge blast. The most serious of these was a 26-year-old male who was taken to La Paz hospital in a moderate to serious condition; another male, aged 53, suffered minor head injuries, and was taken to the Ramón y Cajal hospital; and a third man, aged 29, suffered a fractured fibula and was moved to the Clínico hospital. A 27-year-old who suffered injuries to his ankle was taken to the Fundación Jiménez Díaz for tests. Two National Police officers were also taken to hospital with mild injuries.
The Church priest, Gabriel Benedicto, 39, was locked down in the building due to coronavirus at the time of the blast. “He is okay and in a state of shock,” sources close to him reported.
The first minutes after the explosion caused chaos in the central La Latina neighborhood. Hundreds of residents came out to their balconies, as a plume of white smoke – visible from kilometers around – pointed to the origin of the blast. Police and ambulance sirens began to wail all around.
Images of the aftermath began to reach WhatsApp groups of thousands of people. Pablo Nogales, 43, came upon the scene as he left the Puerta de Toledo Metro station. There, he explained, he saw a woman crying, as well as parked cars on the street completely destroyed by the rubble. He saw smoke and the faces of passers-by in complete shock. He took out his cellphone, almost as a reflex, and began to record the scene. “It was all full of rubble, it was really shocking,” he said.
All of the patrons of a nearby bar, called Eduardo, came out onto the street to see what had happened. “It was as if a bomb had dropped, the noise was tremendous,” said the bar’s eponymous owner.
In around 30 minutes, ambulances, fire crews and dozens of police officers had cordoned off the area, and had begun to evacuate residents and passers-by. A neighboring senior residence, Los Nogales, was immediately evacuated, with its 57 residents taken to safety.
Also next to the affected building is a school, La Salle-La Paloma. The 200 students had only just returned to class on Wednesday, after a delay of a week and a half due to the effects of the recent Storm Filomena, which left a near-unprecedented amount of snow on the city. The children had a lucky escape from injury, given that they were not in the school yard at the time of the blast as they normally would be due to the snow that was still present in the area. Despite the huge amounts of rubble that fell onto the school yard, just one child was left with a mild injury, a minor head wound according to the regional education department. The school has already been inspected by the local council’s technicians, but its students will be studying from home while the full structural damage is evaluated.
English version by Simon Hunter.