By TIM GOLDEN,
Published: April 23, 1992
GUADALAJARA, Mexico, April 22— A series of powerful explosions flattened homes and tore up streets through a working-class neighborhood of this city today, killing at least 200 people and injuring 600 others, the authorities said.
The chief spokesman for the Jalisco state government, Jaime Avalos, said the explosions in Mexico’s second-largest city appeared to have been caused by hexane dumped by a private cooking oil company into the sewer system. Hexane is a highly volatile liquid used to extract edible oils from seeds.
The authorities said that at least a dozen explosions, beginning at 10:20 A.M., had blown open large craters and trenches along streets in the Reforma district of southeastern Guadalajara, tossing trucks and buses on their sides. Cars were flipped over or crushed by falling debris in the area where the blasts occurred.
An explosion in an area that had been evacuated occurred as late as 7:30 P.M., officials said, and there were unconfirmed reports of another blast after 10 P.M.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered disaster relief aid and flew here tonight to supervise the rescue efforts.
People dug in the rubble with picks and axes as they searched frantically for survivors. Some residents wandered dazed or in tears among the ruins, their clothing tattered.
Block by block, the rescue efforts seemed almost overwhelmed by confusion among relief workers, firemen and the police.
“We want to work; what can we do?” shouted Silvio Flores, a Red Cross supervisor with two dozen volunteers behind him.
From the other side of a vast trench littered with plaster and overturned cars a police captain shrugged.
“What do I know?” he said.
Mr. Avalos, the state government spokesman, said the company responsible for the hexane leak was Acietera la Central. He said it was fined by the Government’s Environmental Ministry two days earlier and had been forced to shut down, but he did not know if the fine had been for dumping hexane.
Mr. Avalos said the authorities were questioning owners of the factory.
[ The manager of Acietera la Central, Jose Morales, said the company’s drainage system was not connected to the city’s, The Associated Press reported. He said that he welcomed an investigation and that his company “will not be a scapegoat,” the report said. ]
Mexico’s state oil monopoly, Pemex, denied assertions by some local officials that the blasts were caused by large quantities of gasoline that leaked into the sewer system. Pemex, which has been involved in several past explosions in Mexico, appeared eager to distance itself from blame in this case. Reports of Warnings
According to local news reports, residents warned the fire department early Tuesday that smoke and strong gasoline-like odors had been emanating from sewer drains beneath the Reforma area, the southeast quadrant of the city. Hexane, a hydrocarbon, smells somewhat like kerosene.
Fire officials and technicians from Pemex inspected the area through the night. But as late as 9:30 this morning, about an hour before the explosions, the city fire chief, Maj. Trinidad Lopez Riva, was quoted as telling reporters there was no danger.
“Unfortunately the source was only found after the first explosion,” Mr. Avalos said.
Homero Aridjis, a poet and the leader of Mexico’s biggest environmentalist group, said in Mexico City, “The leaders of the police and fire department of Guadalajara should be tried as those responsible for the catastrophe.”
The explosions destroyed at least 30 blocks of residential, commercial and industrial neighborhoods scattered over several miles of the Reforma district. After the blasts, streets looked as if they had been dug up by a giant backhoe. The facades of single family homes were blown off, and concrete, cars and dirt piled up against them. In some areas, small buildings were crushed almost entirely.
“The spectacle in the streets makes it look as if we have been bombarded,” said a reporter for Radio Red, Juan Sanchez.
Large areas of the city were evacuated and blocked off to traffic. Police cars and ambulances raced up and down the streets, trailed by crowds of Red Cross volunteers. To reduce the risk of more explosions, city officials ordered sewer vents opened.
Most of the greater metropolitan area, home to about 4.5 million people, was undamaged, but telephone service and electricity went out in scattered areas of the city.
People huddled around radios, listening for the latest news. And despite warnings that more explosions were possible, many people who had been evacuated sneaked back across police lines to return to their homes.
Jose Corona, a 22-year-old salesman, said he had just parked his car on Rio Atotoniko Street when he felt his ears clapped by the sound of an explosion.
“There was this boom and I must have flown three feet in the air,” he said. “Just look at my car.”
Mr. Corona pointed across the street, where his green Opel was turned sideways on a giant mound of dirt where the sidewalk had been.
“The lady from the tortilla store is still under there,” he said. Makeshift Morgues
Gov. Guillermo Cosio Vidaurri ordered those left homeless housed temporarily in the state university and two sports stadiums. Makeshift morgues were set up in gymnasiums and hospitals.
The Red Cross reported at least 1,000 buildings damaged, many heavily. Most of the bodies were taken to the Jalisco state sports complex in the northern part of the city, where crowds of people looking for missing relatives pressed up against policemen at the gates.
Inside, the bodies covered the gymnasium floor, blood-soaked plywood beneath them, bags of ice piled on their chests.
“So many dead,” muttered Jaime de la Torre. “So many dead.”
Mr. de la Torre, a Guadalajara merchant, stood outside the square of yellow plastic tape held up by rows of electric fans that blew the stench back to the floor.
He had come in an ambulance, he said, with the body of his nephew, who perished in the rubble of his sister’s home.
“So many dead,” he said again.
As the night wore on and the crowd thinned, the floor became checkered with macabre colors: red where the bodies had been, white were sheets covered everything but their dusty faces, and green where the plywood was pushed aside to make room for more.
Guadalajara, one of the most stately of Mexico’s largest cities, has been a popular tourist destination for Americans and has a large community of American retirees as well as American medical students. But the explosions were not close the areas where American residents are concentrated.
In 1983, a similar blast tore through the streets over about six blocks of the Juarez sector, which borders the Reforma sector to the west. The neighborhood suffered extensive damage and about 15 people were injured, but no one was killed, said Guillermo Vallarta, who was Mayor at the time.
“The problem that we have is that there is no separate drainage system for the city’s industry,” Mr. Vallarta said in an interview. “So the sewers can fill up with flammable materials.”
Photos: Workers sifting through the rubble of a street destroyed yesterday in Guadalajara, Mexico, after explosions killed at least 200 people (pg. A1); Rescuers sifting through the rubble of a building after an explosion knocked down buildings and tore up streets through downtown Guadalajara. An official said the blasts appeared to have been caused by a volatile liquid dumped into the sewer system by a private cooking-oil company. (pg. A12) (Associated Press) Map of Guadalajara, Mexico showing location of explosions. (pg. A12)