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Concrete Water Tank Collapses; Kills Four, Destroys Nine Homes

July 23, 1988

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) _ Residents say they warned authorities for weeks about a crack in a concrete water tank that collapsed, releasing a 750,000-gallon wave that killed four people, injured 19 and destroyed nine homes.

″But as always they never listen,″ Perfecto Guerrero de la Cruz said Friday as he paused from digging through his house’s rubble with a pickax.

The gray, rectangular tank was near the top of a steep hill overlooking a neighborhood of adobe, cinder-block and concrete houses. A 120-foot-long wall broke away from the tank without warning about 9:20 a.m. Friday.

″We heard a very loud sound, like an explosion,″ said Vicenta Saucedo, 33. She said she followed her daughters when they went out to see what had happened. ″I saw a torrent of water flowing past.″

Nine-year-old Martin Torrez de la Rosa was grinding corn near the bottom of the hill when he heard the noise and looked up.

″When I was running away, I saw a boy over there,″ he said in a shaking voice, pointing to a spot farther downhill. ″The water took him away.″

The water swept away people, walls, roofs, furniture and clothing. Survivors dug through the rubble Friday afternoon, searching for buried possessions in this border town near El Paso, Texas.

Some residents dried their salvaged clothes on parked cars. Others cleared spots in the dirt where they placed dishes, appliances, religious artifacts and other items.

Three people died at the scene and a fourth died later in a hospital, Fire Chief Gabriel Rodriguez said.

City engineer Luis Soria told the El Paso Herald-Post that authorities were looking into the possibility that the 3-year-old tank’s foundation was weakened by three weeks of unusually heavy rainfall.

Manuel Ortega, director of the city Water and Sanitation Department, said he inspected the tank after the collapse and could find no defects in materials, workmanship or design.

The rectangular gray tank measured 120 feet by 60 feet and rose about 12 feet from the ground. Cracks started developing in the walls a few weeks ago, said Guerrero, adding that he and other neighbors reported the problem to authorities.

The tank was filled earlier this year, giving residents of two subdivisions running water for the first time.

″So we finally got water, but then we got too much - and lost a life,″ Guerrero said.

Guerrero’s 17-year-old nephew, Francisco Olvera Guerrero, was killed. Jorge Martinez, 3, and Jose Antonio Martinez Lin, 9, also were dead at the scene, the fire chief said. Rodriguez said a man died Friday afternoon at a hospital, and that his identity was being withheld pending notification of relatives.

One person was in critical condition at Juarez General Hospital, a police spokeswoman said. Twelve others were hospitalized with minor injures and about six others were treated and released.

Irene Vallez, who lives near the accident site, said she also had seen cracks in the tank’s walls. She said water started leaking from the structure’s roof last week, prompting her to call authorities.

She said she saw water trickling down the street from the tank’s direction about 9:05 a.m. Friday. ″Then, about 15 minutes later, I heard a sound like an explosion.″

The east wall appeared to have broken away cleanly from the rest of the tank. A 90-foot section of the wall was thrown 20 feet across a dirt road, where it came to rest leaning against a house, steel reinforcing bars sticking out of the broken concrete like a cat’s whiskers.

The rest of the 9-inch-thick wall was pushed to the side and blocked the road. The tank’s other three walls and roof stayed intact. The tank was one of 23 serving the city, Ortega said.

The water slammed into the homes before draining into a gully about 100 yards downhill from the tank.

Mayor Jaime Bermudez promised that families made homeless would be guaranteed shelter, food and clothing. Water service was restored to the area Friday evening by re-connecting homes to a metal water tank.

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