Five Canadians dead, six injured in Mexican blast

Malcolm Johnson, 33, left, pictured with his wife and daughter, was killed by an explosion at his Mexican resort just days after getting married.

Just days after saying “I do” in a beach ceremony in Mexico, 33-year-old Malcolm Johnson left his new bride and one-year-old daughter to get a coffee in the lounge of the Grand Riviera Princess hotel.

The British Columbia realtor had one more week of vacation to go when a powerful explosion ripped through his resort hotel on Mexico’s posh Riviera Maya, taking his life.

“It was a big event – a wedding, a honeymoon and a holiday all wrapped into one. This is just the worst time,” said Ron Williams, who has worked with Johnson at Coast Realty in Nanaimo, B.C. for the past six years. “We’re just shocked. We’re in disbelief.”

The Sunday morning explosion killed five Canadians, including a nine-year-old boy, and injured six more, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed at a press conference Monday morning.

Mexican authorities say the explosion, which also killed two Mexican workers, was caused by a build up of gas from a nearby swamp.

“On behalf of the government and all Canadians, I offer my condolences to the family members and friends of those who lost their lives and wish a quick recovery to those who were injured,” Cannon said. “I also extend my sympathies to everyone affected by this terrible explosion.”

The blast at the 676-room hotel blew out windows and ceiling panels and hurled paving stones and chunks of metal 50 metres onto the palm-fringed lawn of the compound.

Chris Charmont, 41, and his nine-year-old son John were among the five Canadians killed, a family member from Alberta has confirmed.

Darlene Ferguson, from Ardrossan, Alberta, was also killed, her family confirmed.

Elgin Barron, of Guelph, Ont., was also killed in the blast, his employer, Cambridge-based Com Dev International Ltd., has confirmed. Another Com Dev employee, Larry Smith, was also injured in the explosion; his wife, Linda, was also at the resort but is unharmed.

Grief counselors have been brought in to Com Dev Monday morning to help employees cope with the tragedy, said company CEO Mike Pley. Barron, a sub-contract manager, has been at the company for 14 years and Smith is also a longtime employee, having worked at Com Dev for 23 years, Pley said.

“This is a shock,” he said. “We’re just trying to support the families as best as we can.”  “(Barron) obviously was a popular and well-respected member of the staff.”  Mexican media reported that the other dead were Sergio Villegas Márquez and Eduardo Flores.  Cannon said two Canadians remain in critical condition in Mexico.

Cannon said the government of Mexico would be investigating the explosion.  “It’s an unfortunate accident. There’s been loss of life and it is a tragedy. But I’m sure that in the next couple of weeks and months, the government of Mexico will be able to cast and shed all of the light on this incident,” Cannon said.

The resort was hosting a large number of Canadians, including at least one wedding and a company vacation.  A Facebook album of the Johnson’s wedding was posted by his aunt just one day ago.  “My nephew Malcolm and his beautiful bride, what a magical ceremony in Playa Des Carmen. Love you both xoxo,” Debra Johnson wrote.

Back in B.C., Gary Bowen received a text message that his colleague was missing on Sunday. Hours later, the news came that Johnson had been killed in the blast.  Johnson’s coworkers recalled how Johnson used to pull out his iPhone to show videos of his family.

“He would show us video clips of his daughter,” Williams said. “Loved his family, just loved his family.”  The blast occurred in a lounge on the ground floor of one of a dozen or so buildings that make up the sprawling hotel, and left a crater a metre deep.  The area, next to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, was cordoned off and about 30 Mexican army soldiers stood guard around the hotel.

Francisco Alor, attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state where the resort is located, told local media that investigations were under way to see if the hotel building, which sat on a concrete pad on a swampy area near the beach, had been properly constructed.

“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,” he said.  Officials said no gas lines were located in the area where the blast occurred.

Pete Travers, program director of 570 News Radio in Kitchener, Ont., was at the hotel with a large group of Canadians from nearby Waterloo. He said all members of his group were accounted for.  Travers recalled hearing a huge crash before he went down for breakfast. He stepped into the hallway to find people running from the blast site as word of an explosion rippled across the resort.

“There was quite a lot of chaos,” Travers said. He and a few other guests rushed to grab deck chairs from the pool area to use as makeshift stretchers.

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