Debbie Moore heard about the explosion on the news — a number of Canadians had been killed, among them a young boy and his father — and she and the rest of the Charmont family naturally feared the worst.
Moore's brother Chris Charmont and his wife, Tara, along with their kids, 10-year-old Meagan and 9-year-old John, were vacationing at the same resort.
Eventually Tara called with the news the family had been dreading.
“She just said, ‘They're gone,'” Moore said Sunday night from her home in Drumheller, Alta. “I don't know what to say, because we're just crushed, really.”
Charmont, 41, and his son John were among the five Canadian tourists killed Sunday morning in a gas explosion at a popular Mexican resort hotel south of Cancun. Two workers were also killed.
The explosion occurred in the lobby of the 676-room Grand Princess Riviera Hotel in the city of Playa del Carmen around 9:30 a.m., local time.
Mexican media reported the other dead were: Malcolm Johnson of Nanaimo, B.C., Elgin Aron, Sergio Villegas Márquez and Eduardo Flores.
Darlene Ferguson, 52, of Edmonton, died after being taken to hospital.
Eight Canadians were reported injured, including two listed in critical condition. Ten others, including two U.S. citizens and eight Mexican employees of the hotel, suffered less serious wounds and were listed as stable.
According to local reports and witness accounts, the floor of the building was hurled through the ceiling by the force of the explosion, blowing out windows and sending fragments of aluminum window and ceiling panels about 50 metres onto the lawn of the compound.
The blast left a metre-deep crater inside the building.
Glen Hogg, of Halifax, was one of the dozens of Canadians staying at the Mexican resort. He was in line at the breakfast buffet, empty plate in hand, when he heard a deafening blast.
The walls shook and the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows shattered, scattering shards of glass and stone debris through the air as he dove for cover under a table.
“People thought at first that a plane crashed into the building,” he said.
Hogg, 35, who arrived Sunday night with his girlfriend Julie Arseneau at Pearson airport on their way home, said the resort was in a state of panic after the explosion with people “running and screaming.”
“It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” said Arseneau, 27, describing the blast. “It actually shook the ground, shook the walls.”
There was a “mad rush” to check out of the resort, Hogg said, adding that security guards “with Uzis” were guarding the site of the explosion and trying to corral the panicked crowd to evacuate in an orderly fashion.
They said they didn't smell any gas before or after the explosion.
Carson Arthur, 39, of Toronto, said in a telephone interview from the resort that “all of the air was sucked out of every open door, every room and then pushed back at a huge rate.”
“The velocity of the air coming back was incredible, so people were thrown around all over the place in the rooms and hallways,” he said.
“There were several people in the debris; there were a lot of people wounded from flying glass.”
Initial investigations were focusing on the possibility that naturally occurring gas from a nearby swamp had built up under the hotel and somehow ignited, said Francisco Alor, attorney general of Quintana Roo, where the resort is located.
Officials at the resort said no gas lines were located in the area where the blast occurred.
“The report suggests an accumulation of gases produced by decomposing organic material in the subsoil, and this gas produced the explosion,” Alor said. “Expert examiners and civil defence personnel will have to determine if the underground space filled with swampy water that remained in this zone when the building was constructed four years ago, could have generated this type of gases.”
The resort was packed with Canadians from various provinces, including at least one wedding and company vacation.
Charmont and his wife, Tara, both worked for Encana, a natural gas company, in Drumheller, Alta., Moore said.
“They had such a busy hockey season and a busy work season,” she said. “It was just one big hurrah before the next bout of being gone every night.”
Moore described her brother as a dedicated family man and devoted hockey dad.
“They were a very close family. They did everything for their kids.”
John was “all boy, a very typical 9-year-old,” but he could also “just melt your heart with some of the things he would say.”
“Hockey was his life ... but he was sweet, too; he had a heart of gold.”
Johnson, 33, a Nanaimo, B.C.-based realtor with Coast Realty, was at the resort for his wedding and honeymoon, according to The Province in Vancouver.
“He was just the best,” Ron Williams, managing broker at Coast Realty, told the newspaper. “He was loved and respected. He was optimistic with great principles. So it's just a shock to us all.”
Johnson's 1-year-old daughter was also at the resort, the newspaper reported, but she was uninjured.
“I heard he went down to the lobby to retrieve some messages and his wife wasn't with him when the explosion happened,” Williams said.
Ferguson, a 52-year-old grandmother was at the resort for her son's wedding, according to the Edmonton Journal.
“She was 15, 20 feet away when it blew,” her brother Barry Hoffman told the newspaper.
Ferguson was rushed to hospital with serious injuries.
“We heard she was injured,” he said. “Then we heard one of her lungs collapsed. Then we heard she passed away on the operating table.”
Pete Travers, program director of 570 News Radio in Kitchener, was staying at the hotel with a group of 60 Canadians from Waterloo.
Speaking from his cellphone, Travers recounted the emotional scene of witnessing a family staying at the resort getting the news about a loved one who had died.
“It was a heartbreaking moment, very horrendous, just watching this man, this family, receive news that someone connected with them had died and about 40 feet away people are ordering drinks at the bar,” he said.
He learned later it was the man's sister. “It's just so, so sad. No one's telling us anything, that's a little frustrating, but the staff is doing what they can, they're dealing with this with extreme professionalism.”
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