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At Least 20 Killed, 80 Hurt in Puerto Rico Explosion

November 22, 1996

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ The shops and restaurants were just opening on crowded Camelia Soto Street when an explosion blew apart a six-story building Thursday, turning windows into flying knives and crushing drivers in their cars.

At least 20 people were killed, and more than 80 were hurt. Police expected to find at least 10 more bodies in the mounds of torn steel and concrete that were offices and apartments.

President Clinton declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, a move authorizing federal aid for recovery efforts and federal rescue teams to participate in the search for more victims.

Officials suspected a leak in a pipe carrying cooking gas caused the blast, and said the building’s owner had been complaining for weeks of escaping gas. The San Juan Gas Co., however, said it couldn’t confirm a gas explosion and said there had been no gas service to the building.

The explosion sent shards of shattered glass into a Roman Catholic parochial school across the street. Some of the 500 students inside the Colegio La Milagrosa _ School of the Miraculous _ were knocked to the ground, but no one was injured.

Shoppers hunting for bargains in the stores that line the street fled the billowing black cloud of dust and debris in terror.

The 8:35 a.m. explosion in San Juan’s congested Rio Piedras district ripped a 50-foot-wide hole in the concrete building, partially collapsing the first four floors and exposing rooms inside.

The bodies of two women were found in a car crushed by debris; searchers extricated a beheaded body from the shattered building. Rescue workers used dogs to look for missing victims.

The dead were laid out on the pavement in front of the Iglesia La Milagrosa Catholic Church, where workers placed sheets over the bodies. Roman Catholic Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez administered the last rites.

Maria Rolon, owner of a jewelry store next door to the building, was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital, where she asked for her daughter Lisandra, 24.

``We don’t know how she is,″ Rolon said, tears streaming down her face. ``There was this explosion, a lot of screaming, and when I came to, she just wasn’t there.″

In the hospital waiting room, relatives and friends held hands, prayed together, comforted each other. ``Lord, give us strength,″ one woman prayed.

Dozens of survivors, coated with blood and dust, were whisked away by helicopters to other hospitals, where hundreds of anguished relatives converged. Many had been cut by flying glass.

``It’s bloody and horrible. There are smashed up people, body parts,″ said Pedro Rosario, spokesman at Puerto Rico Medical Center.

At least 20 people were killed and 82 were injured, said police Chief Pedro Toledo. ``We expect to find about 10 or 15 more bodies,″ he said.

Luis Vidal, owner of the Humberto Vidal shoe shop, said six of his workers were missing. Two employees from the adjacent Disco Fiesta record store and three from a jewelry store also were missing, Vidal said.

Toledo said a leak of liquid petroleum gas, which is piped throughout the city for cooking, probably caused the blast, which toppled utility poles and smashed windows and storefronts for blocks around. Utility workers were outside the building on Wednesday to locate a leak and had returned early Thursday to repair it, he said.

Amid the rubble, a gas company truck rested on its roof, its wheels sticking in the air.

As night fell, the search was suspended while engineers worked to reinforce the building with steel beams and scaffolding. Authorities had yet to search the basement, which was filled with 12 feet of debris. A 40-member search-and-rescue team, organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was to arrive late Thursday.

San Juan Gas Co. officials were investigating the blast.

``If it were gas, it would have had to be a huge quantity to cause that much destruction, and if it were a criminal act _ because we still aren’t discarding any options _ the perpetrators would have needed a ... lot of explosives,″ Toledo said. But he added that FBI investigators had told him all signs pointed to a gas explosion.

``I don’t want to place any blame, but I do know that the owner of the building said that they had been calling the gas company for two or three weeks reporting leaks and they only came yesterday,″ Toledo added.

National Guard troops and mounted police sealed off the block and warned bystanders not to light cigarettes.

Edison Misla Aldarondo, speaker of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives, said many gas lines in the area _ as in the rest of San Juan _ were at least 50 years old and in need of repair. He promised a legislative investigation.

``We cannot expect to wait for a tragedy worse than what happened here today and should act now,″ Misla said.

Acting Gov. Norma Burgos declared three days of mourning. Burgos, who is secretary of state, said she had spoken by phone with Gov. Pedro Rossello in New York and he ordered the mourning period.

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