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Water Tank Ruptures; Four Dead

July 23, 1988

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) _ The wall of a concrete water tank ruptured Friday, killing four people and injuring 19 others when a torrent gushed through a neighborhood of adobe houses, destroying nine homes.

Residents said they had recently warned city officials about cracks in the 3-year-old tank, which was perched on a hillside.

More than 750,000 gallons of water poured down the hillside, officials said, and the tank’s east wall, about 120 feet long, separated cleanly from the rest of the tank.

A 90-foot section of the 9-inch-thick, reinforced concrete wall was thrown 20 feet across a dirt road and came to rest against a house. The rest of the wall broke away and blocked the road.

Manuel Ortega, director of the city Water and Sanitation Department, said the tank was built in 1985, though neighborhood residents said the tank was six months old. Ortega said crews worked on the tank about six months ago.

The tank was about 120 feet wide, 60 feet deep and 12 feet high. Ortega said it was at full capacity, or 780,000 gallons.

″We heard a very loud sound, like an explosion,″ said Vicenta Saucedo, 33. ″But I didn’t pay attention because I was feeding my children breakfast. And then the girls went out to see what happened, and I went out too, and I saw a torrent of water flowing past.″

The gray tank was perched near the top of a foothill to the western mountains bounding this border city near El Paso, Texas. Below the tank was a cluster of houses made of adobe, cinderblock and concrete. The rush of water flattened houses in its path and then drained into a gully about 100 yards downhill from the tank.

The displaced families spent the day digging through mud and rubble to retrieve their belongings. Some placed clothes on automobiles to dry in the desert sun. Others cleared spots where they placed dishes, religious statuettes and paintings, alarm clocks and other items.

Perfecto Guerrero de la Cruz said he was at work when he was notified of the accident. He rushed home and found that his nephew, Francisco Olvera Guerrero, 17, had died.

Jorge Martinez, 3, and Jose Antonio Martinez Lin, 9, also were killed, and a man injured in the accident died Friday afternoon in a hospital, Fire Chief Gabriel Rodriguez said. He said the man’s name was not being released pending notification of relatives.

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

During a break from digging through his house’s rubble with a pick ax, Perfecto Guerrero said he and neighbors had notified city officials a few weeks ago about cracks they had seen in the tank’s walls.

″We called them (city officials) before to tell them there was some cracks, but as always they never listen until they see (the damage),″ he said.

The structure was filled earlier this year, giving residents of the Lopez Mateos and Diaz Ordaz subdivision running water for the first time.

″So we finally got water, but then we got too much - and lost a life,″ Guerrero said as he gazed at the destruction around him.

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

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

City engineer Luis Soria told the El Paso Herald-Post that investigators were looking into the possibility that the tank’s foundation might have been weakened in the wet ground. Three inches of rain have fallen since July 1, as measured at El Paso International Airport, compared with 1.6 inches in a normal July - the area’s rainiest month on average.

Juarez, a city of 1.1 million with an annual growth rate of almost 10 percent, uses different types of water tanks, from ones like the concrete box that ruptured Friday to the steel, cylindrical tanks on stilts that are common in the United States.

Witnesses said the ruptured tank was erected in just a few days about six months ago.

Irene Vallez, who lives near the scene of the accident, said water overflowed last week from pipes atop the covered tank. Like Guerrero, she said cracks had formed in the walls a few weeks ago.

″About 9:05, water started coming out and flowing in a trickle down the street,″ she said. ″Then, about 15 minutes later, I heard a sound like an explosion.″

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