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Fire Reignites; Residents Search for Relatives Separated in Evacuation

June 25, 1988

GUADALUPE, Mexico (AP) _ Fire rekindled in a gasoline storage tank Friday, just hours after officials declared it extinguished and 10,000 evacuated residents of the area started going home.

Flames and thick black smoke shot into the air over this industrial suburb of Monterrey for a second day. Radio and television stations warned people to stay away from the San Rafael gasoline depot, where three 40-foot-tall tanks exploded Thursday, killing at least four people and injuring at least 18.

It was the second explosion and fire in a month at a depot operated by Pemex, the government oil monopoly. On May 24, more than 100,000 people were forced out of the area around a gas and kerosene supply depot in the northern city of Chihuahua. No one was hurt.

News reports in Monterrey said the death toll at San Rafael might be higher. The daily El Sol said one of its reporters saw seven badly burned bodies at a local morgue and ran a banner headline saying: ″They’re Hiding Deaths.″

Officials declared two of the blazing tanks extinguished late Thursday night. They reported the third one out Friday morning, but then said the collapsed tank began burning again a few hours later.

A Pemex statement Friday afternoon said two people were killed Thursday and two of the injured died Friday. It said firefighters had the new blaze under control and it was expected to burn out within hours.

One of the dead was Vicente Quiroga Garcia, owner-manager of the Monterrey construction company Constructora Quiroga y Villarreal, which Pemex hired to maintain fire-prevention equipment at the depot, Maria Estella Garcia, a construction company secretary, said by telephone Friday.

The construction company gave the Monterrey newspaper El Norte a list of the names of the 54 workers who were at the plant Thursday and noted that 13 had not been accounted for.

Some of the 13 missing, may have died ″because we’ve been told there are people they haven’t been able to identify because they are so badly burned,″ Ms. Garcia said. She said she did not know whether that information was from Pemex or state health officials.

Raul Robles, assistant commercial director of Pemex, blamed the explosions and fire on a leak in one of the tanks. Officials said each of the 23 tanks at the depot holds 2.2 million gallons of gasoline or diesel fuel.

Thousands of people who fled on Thursday had begun heading home, many searching for relatives lost in the rush to escape a fire that police say reached temperatures of 5,400 degrees Farenheit and melted several vehicles.

″We were going to take a bath and then get some sleep,″ said Minerva Garcia, a housewife who had to leave her home a second time.

″All of a sudden, we heard the fire trucks again and the street was full of smoke and flames. It was the same thing all over again: people were running around the streets.″

Mrs. Garcia said her quick trip home paid off because she found her husband. They were separated in the first evacuation, but ″I got home and there he was in the kitchen, waiting,″ she said in an emergency shelter.

When the fire began anew, police at barricades stopped residents who were returning home. The shelters soon were full again.

Concepcion Sierra Mendez, 32, among those prevented from returning, said she had left her three children at home Thursday while she went to a medical clinic.

She said she spent the night walking from shelter to shelter, searching for them and ″the despair is terrible.″ She sobbed as she told the story.

Behind her, white chemical foam used to fight the fires filled a roadside ditch like a dirty bubble bath.

″I can’t find my son. He’s 10 years old,″ said Antonio Bernal, 36, walking through an auditorium packed with 300 people. ″All the children were in the house and I guess he ran out. ... People left their houses wide open and just ran.″

Television and radio stations broadcast the names of the missing throughout the greater Monterrey area, where 2.8 people live. Monterrey is the capital of the northern state of Nuevo Leon and Mexico’s third largest city.

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