GUADALAJARA, MEXICO — Hundreds of volunteers clawed through rubble with bare hands Wednesday to try to rescue trapped survivors after huge gas explosions flattened buildings in central Guadalajara, killing around 200 people and injuring hundreds.
The powerful explosions, which tore apart a working-class neighborhood near the city center, were caused by a suspected leak of gas or chemicals into a branch of the sewer system.
The blasts, occurring at about 10 a.m. local time Wednesday, lifted cars and trucks into the air and leveled scores of buildings in this city of around 3 million people, 270 miles northwest of Mexico City. Entire streets sunk into gaping holes up to 50 feet deep.
"People didn't know if it was an earthquake, a bomb, or an explosion," rescue worker Jorge Gordinez said.
"The number of dead is just over 200," said Fernando Perez Jimenez, director of the Red Cross for Guadalajara's home state of Jalisco, adding the Red Cross alone had attended around 400 injured.
More explosions shook an industrial area in the southeast of the city late Wednesday, but no one was hurt.
Roadblocks manned by police and soldiers steered traffic away from the affected zones, which spanned a seven-mile, 20-block area snaking southeast from near the city center.
There were conflicting accounts as to the cause of the explosions but the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos said they were triggered by an undetermined quantity of highly volatile liquid hexane, which it said had been dumped into a sewer by a local cooking oil company.
The manager of the company denied the charge.
Jaime Avalos Medina, chief spokesman for the Jalisco government, said three companies were being investigated on charges that they had dumped a chemical solvent or liquid gas into the sewage system on Monday or Tuesday, eventually triggering the fatal explosions.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari arrived in Guadalajara Wednesday night to oversee relief operations.
The incident was the worst gas-related disaster in Mexico since November 1984, when more than 400 people were killed in an explosion at a gas depot on the outskirts of Mexico City.