Death toll rises to 11 in powerful explosion near the Dominican Republic’s capital; 10 still missing

SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic — The death toll from a powerful explosion near the Dominican Republic’s capital rose to 11 on Tuesday, with dozens injured. Firefighters were searching through smoldering rubble as people gathered outside hospitals, looking for missing loved ones.

President Luis Abinader visited San Cristobal, located just west of Santo Domingo, to meet with those affected. Officials said an additional 10 people were missing and that authorities were still trying to extinguish the fire amid collapsed buildings and charred vehicles.

“The search for survivors has been very difficult,” Abinader said.

The explosion occurred Monday afternoon at a bakery, with authorities investigating what might have caused the blast as they vowed to take action if a business was not operating to proper standards.

Juan Manuel Méndez, director of the Emergency Operations Center, said at a press conference Tuesday night that responders had found the remains of unidentified people inside one building but were waiting on forensics to determine the number of bodies.

Monday’s explosion also left more than 50 people injured as the blast tore through a bustling commercial center in San Cristobal, authorities said. At least 36 of the injured remained hospitalized, said Joel Santos, minister of the presidency.

Estefani Alcántara said her family was shopping when the explosion occurred. Her uncle, 42, is hospitalized with serious injuries and her aunt is still missing.

“We don’t know if she’s dead or alive,” she said with tearful eyes as she waited outside a local hospital, feeling full of “frustration, pain and distress.”

Meanwhile, Jeni Benzan de los Santos said her sister and baby niece died in the explosion, and that her father remains missing. “They won’t let me into the morgue to see if I can identify my father,” she said.

The country’s emergency telephone system said the explosion occurred at a bakery in the city’s center, a bustling area known as “Old Marketplace,” where people buy goods ranging from vegetables to clothes. The fire then spread to a hardware store next door and a nearby furniture store.

More than 500 first responders and officials responded to the explosion, which destroyed four buildings and damaged nine others, Méndez told reporters.

Among the victims was a 4-month-old baby who died from head trauma and a woman who worked at a bank, officials said.

José Ramón Ramírez Rivera, the owner of a local veterinary clinic, told reporters that one of his 15 employees is still missing.

“An office wall fell on top of me,” he recalled. “I couldn’t breathe.”

Juan Jiménez, a farmer who lives several miles away, said he thought it was thunder at first, given the usual storms that occur in August. He is now waiting for information on his female cousin, a 31-year-old professor who remains missing.

Smoke still engulfed the city center on Tuesday, and Health Minister Daniel Rivera urged everyone to wear face masks. “This smoke is mixed with chemicals,” he warned.

Rivera and other officials went door to door to ensure that people had masks and determine whether they had any respiratory or skin problems. He also visited patients at a local hospital, where people were still searching for loved ones.

“The first 24 hours are very important,” he said, adding that injuries included burns, fractures and respiratory problems.

Abinader said the government would set up two mobile hospitals to provide further treatment, including psychological services to those affected.

Meanwhile, Santos said the government is launching an investigation to determine whether the business where the explosion occurred was operating under proper regulations.

It wasn’t clear what caused the explosion, and authorities have not provided a preliminary estimate of damages.

“These catastrophes have an order of priority: save lives, save assets, ensure that the incident is extinguished and then assess damage,” Santos said at a news conference.

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.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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