By MARTÍN ADAMES ALCÁNTARA and DÁNICA COTO
Updated [hour]:[minute] [AMPM] [timezone], [monthFull] [day], [year]
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — A powerful explosion rocked a bustling market area near the capital of the Dominican Republic on Monday, killing at least three people and injuring more than 30 others as people tried to flee amid the chaos, authorities said.
The explosion occurred at a bakery in the city of San Cristobal, which lies just west of Santo Domingo, the country’s 911 system said in a statement.
Charred cars and debris from several collapsed buildings lined the streets as thick black smoke rose from the city’s center and enveloped several blocks, prompting businesses to evacuate while crowds gathered to film the incident. Some said they thought it was a bomb or an earthquake.
Left behind in the rubble were shoes, overturned chairs and even a motorcycle helmet.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the explosion, which officials said sparked a fire that spread from the bakery to a hardware store located next door and a nearby furniture store.
The incident occurred Monday afternoon in an area known as “Old Marketplace,” where throngs of people shop daily for goods ranging from fruits to clothes. The victims were a four-month-old baby who died from a head injury and two adults whose bodies were 90% burned, according to a statement from Dr. Mario Lama, director of the country’s National Health Service. A local bank confirmed that one of its female employees died in the explosion.
At least 39 people were reported injured as of late Monday night.
The death toll is expected to increase, with firefighters unable to enter certain buildings while they continued to fight the blaze. As health officials announced the death of three people, civil defense authorities could be seen lifting the bodies of two people who lay on the street near the smoldering site hours after the explosion.
“Our main objective here has been to safeguard the greatest number of human lives,” Joel Santos, minister of the presidency, said during a press conference.
Dominican President Luis Abinader said he dispatched a government team to San Cristobal, adding that officials have been tending to victims and their families from the start.
Pura Casilla, the governor of San Cristobal province, told Noticias SIN that the explosion occurred in a commercial area and greatly affected businesses near the town center.
Firefighters were still battling the blaze on Monday night as authorities ordered people to clear the area, warning that other buildings could collapse.
Government officials arrived on scene, including legislator Franklin Rodríguez, who told local media he was worried about people’s health and safety given the heavy smoke still streaming from several buildings.
“These buildings are very weak,” he said.
He added that toll roads leading to San Cristobal were suspended to allow a greater number of ambulances into the area, with dozens of people rushing to nearby hospitals and clinics to search for loved ones. Some cried outside the main hospital as others hugged them for comfort.
Eddy Montás, a local representative, told Noticias SIN that he saw a couple of bodies in the area, in addition to the three deaths that authorities reported.
“We are saddened by what happened today,” he said.
San Cristobal, the birthplace of dictator Rafael Trujillo, was the site of another explosion nearly 23 years ago. An arms depot exploded in October 2000, killing at least two people and injured more than two dozen others, forcing authorities to evacuate thousands.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.