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Mexico Reels from Explosion

By Peter Eisner
Newsday

GUADALAJARA, Mexico

While stunned survivors wandered in search of lost relatives in the blast zone, government officials and industrialists Thursday traded charges of responsibility for the massive sewer-line explosions that killed at least 200 people and injured more than 1500.

"Please help us," begged Jose Guadalupe Arrellana, weeping as he tugged on the sleeve of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who walked through the crater-wracked ruins of the working-class Reforma district of this city in western Mexico.

"I'll do what I can," Salinas told Arrellana, whose repair shop was destroyed in the blast. At a news conference later, Salinas gave investigators 72 hours to find the cause of the blasts and pledged "to punish those found responsible."

Amid fears of new explosions, municipal workers opened manhole covers and pumped soapy water into downtown sewers to prevent a buildup of volatile fumes, which fueled Wednesday's calamity.

And after residents of the Alamo district, south of Reforma, said they smelled fumes, Guadalajara Mayor Enrique Dau Flores ordered the evacuation of several square blocks. The area is surrounded by about 40 factories, including a plant operated by Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex.

Pemex, the government-run oil monopoly, refused comment Thursday on the source of Wednesday's explosions. But rescue workers throughout the shattered zone said many survivors had spoken of the distinct smell of gasoline, indicating it might have flowed into the sewage system.

The director of the Municipal Water and Sewage Systems, Guadalberto Limon, said the cause of the explosion had not been determined, saying hexane was "a possible cause" and a gasoline leak was another possiblity.

Shortly after the explosions, Pemex blamed a cooking oil company, La Central, saying the firm had allowed volatile hexane gas to enter the sewer system. Thursday, however, the company's owner denied the charge, saying La Central was closed for the Easter holiday and had not lost any stocks of its chemical supply.

"I've spoken with the attorney general's office and told him we don't understand how (Pemex) can be blaming us," said Jesus Hernan Morales Doria.

On Wednesday, fire chief Jose Trinadad Lopez Rivas said thousands of gallons of gasoline had spilled into the sewer system. Pemex said it has no pipelines anywhere near the blast area.

The governor of the state of Jalisco, Guillermo Cosio Vidaurri, accompanied Salinas on his tour and said his government was investigating possible negligence by three city officials, for minimizing local residents' complaints about the gas smell emanating from the sewers.

After Salinas left the neighborhood, eventually returning to Mexico City, survivors in Reforma looked on blankly as workers picked through rubble before signalling earthmovers to begin pushing tons of brick and steel strewn through affected streets.

The rescue effort, run with military precision, combined army and police units, Red Cross officials, students and local volunteers. Local doctors also participated in setting up a series of field hospitals. Officials said 15,000 people were left homeless by the blasts and perhaps 1,000 dwellings were affected.

Rescue teams did not report finding new victims or survivors in the rubble.

More than 24 hours after the blast, smashed cars and trucks were still lying overturned in the 20-foot-deep trench left by the blasts. It was evident from a tour through the zone that the modular adobe and brick construction of the houses served to insulate interior areas, saving them from even worse damage. Inside one house, just a few yards from the worst part of the blast, two parakeets chirped away in their cage. The kitchen was still brimming with the remnants of breakfast -- half-made tortillas and vegetables. A rooster had its pickings as it wandered about the abandoned house.