The blast

An explosion tore through a small lobby of the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, just south of Cancun, around 9:10 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2010. The blast killed five Canadian tourists and two Mexican workers, and injured another 17 people, including eight Canadians.

In describing the event, Francisco Alor, attorney general of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, said that the floor of the building was basically rammed through the ceiling by the force of the explosion, blowing out windows in the process. People in the area were apparently thrown across the courtyard. Vacationers throughout the resort said they felt the tremors of the blast.

Immediately after the blast, hotel workers and tourists ran into hotel rooms to grab towels to bandage the wounded. According to a report by the CBC's Linden MacIntyre, one resort patron was told by management that no one had perished — this despite the fact that he had witnessed paramedics declare two people dead. Right after the explosion, hotel security guards clashed with local journalists trying to gain access to the site.

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Christopher, left, and John Charmont were among the Canadians killed in the hotel blast. ((Toronto Star))

On Nov. 20, the 676-room resort was ordered closed for a week, with 450 guests moved to other hotels.

At the time, Lawrence Cannon, Canadian minister of foreign affairs, stated, "from all intents and purposes, we understand this is an accident ... and it is a tragedy, but I'm sure that within the next couple of weeks and months, the government of Mexico will be able to shed light [on it]."


Canadians involved

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Darlene Ferguson, who was in the resort town to celebrate her son's wedding, died in a Cancun hospital after the blast. ((Edmonton Journal))

Of the five Canadians killed in the blast, three were from Alberta.

Darlene Ferguson, 51, a mother of three from Ardrossan, Alta., was in the resort town to celebrate her son's wedding.

Ferguson was taken to a hospital in Cancun for treatment after the blast, where she died.

According to Ferguson's brother, Barry Hoffman, the ambulance ran out of fuel along the way, and the attendants asked Ferguson's daughter Katie to pay for gas.

Christopher Charmont, 41, and his nine-year-old son, John, both from Drumheller, Alta., also died. Charmont's wife, Terra, and 10-year-old daughter, Megan, were also on the resort, but not in the lobby at the time. 

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Malcolm Johnson had travelled to Mexico to get married on Nov. 10, 2010. ((Canadian Press))

Terra Charmont told the Toronto Star, "For [Christopher] to go to Mexico and be killed by a gas explosion is the ultimate in irony," citing the fact that her husband had been an instrument technician in the oil and gas industry.

Malcolm Johnson, 33, a realtor in Nanaimo, B.C., travelled to Mexico to get married on Nov. 10.

At the time of the explosion, Johnson had gone to the lobby to get coffee for his new bride, Heather Pynten, who waited elsewhere with their one-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Also among the dead was Elgin Barron, of Guelph, Ont., an avid runner. Barron worked for Cambridge, Ont.-based space equipment manufacturer Com Dev International.


Investigation

The powerful blast destroyed a lounge in the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel, shattered windows and hurled chunks of metal and stone in all directions. Sylvia Rodriguez, a Toronto resident who was at the resort, said the hotel's Platinum Lobby was "gone completely, there's nothing left."

In the aftermath of the explosion, authorities quickly ruled out terrorism and bombs, but theories about what could have caused it varied widely

Mexico's state prosecutor and local officials initially said trapped gases from a nearby swamp likely ignited and blew up.

Meanwhile, Mexico's Environmental and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) cast doubts on the swamp gas theory, and a spokesman said the explosion was likely linked to problems with the operation or maintenance of the hotel.

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Damage is evident to a part of the Grand Princess Riviera Hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. ((Pete Travers/570 News/Canadian Press))

Others suggested that the wide use of propane and other gases for cooking and heating water in the area might explain the blast. Investigators also found a ruptured sewer pipe about 10 metres from the site of the blast, which they said could have caused sewer gas to leak under the hotel.   

Bella Coola, B.C., resident Ray Hern, who left the resort the day before the blast, said he smelled some sort of gas the whole time he was there.

"I commented to my friends several times during the week, smelling this septic smell, and we just accepted the fact, 'Oh well, that's what the swamps smell like around here,' " he told CBC Radio.

The hotel sat on a concrete pad on a swampy area near the beach, but swamp gas — an accumulation of gases produced by decomposing organic material in the subsoil — was eventually ruled out.

Mexican authorities opened a homicide inquiry into the explosion on Nov. 18, focusing on the quality of the hotel's construction.

Investigators initially said no gas lines were located in the area where the blast occurred. But on Dec. 11, 2010, Mexican officials fined the resort six million pesos ($481,000 US) over inconsistencies in the building plans on file with the municipality. Mexican daily newspaper Reforma said the inconsistencies included undocumented gas lines.

Then on Dec. 15, investigators said they'd found an unauthorized extension of a gas line under the hotel's lounge. The line had apparently been damaged and leaked prior to the explosion, said Attorney General Francisco Alor, who represents Quintana Roo state where the hotel was located.

In a CBC News report  on Jan. 24, 2011, Alor said the pipeline had been installed illegally and that it was the focus of the investigation into the explosion.


Impact on tourism

The Grand Riviera Princess Hotel blast is one of a series of recent incidents involving Canadian travellers to Mexico. But reports of murder, rape and violence against tourists in Mexico, as well as drug-related violence along the U.S. border, have not deterred Canadians from seeking travel deals to the popular winter destination. Industry experts say tourism has doubled to the area in the past few years, and the strong Canadian dollar continues to attract bargain-hunting tourists to the area.

"With our dollar pretty much at parity, what we're seeing is fantastic rates," Janine Chapman of Sell Off Vacations in Toronto told CBC News on Jan. 19, 2011. "And what we're seeing is a lot of new resorts. There's a lot of development happening in Mexico and when you get new resorts you get introductory rates."

Chapman said the public and the media need to keep in perspective the small number of incidents that happen and the more than one million Canadians who visit each year.

The Canadian government is warning people to avoid northern Mexico, the region hardest hit by the drug wars. For tourist regions around Cancun, Ottawa advises a high degree of caution.

With files from Jonathan Hembry