Family members of hotel employees wait for news after an explosion at the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen. ((Reuters))

Mexican officials are trying to determine what caused a gas explosion at a Playa del Carmen hotel on the weekend that killed two Mexicans and five Canadians, including a nine-year-old boy and a newlywed.

The explosion, which officials say may have been caused by a buildup of gas from a nearby swamp, tore through a lounge of the 676-room Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in the tourist region known as the Mayan Riviera around 9:30 a.m. local time Sunday.

Two resort workers also died and at least six Canadians were injured. Two of them are in critical condition. Initial reports suggested as many as eight other Canadians were hurt. 


Darlene Ferguson, 51, from Ardrossan, Alta., was killed in the blast. ((Edmonton Journal))

Local officials said a woman and four males, all from Canada, were among the dead.

Relatives identified the woman as Darlene Ferguson, 51, from Ardrossan, Alta., east of Edmonton, who was in Mexico for her son's wedding.

Another victim, Malcolm Johnson, a realtor with Coast Realty in Nanaimo, B.C., had travelled to Mexico last week to get married, his friend David Komo said in an interview.


Christopher Charmont and his son, John, were killed in the explosion at the hotel Sunday morning. ((Toronto Star))

Alberta resident Chris Charmont, 41, and his nine-year-old son, John, were also killed, reports said.

Elgin Barron, who worked for the space equipment manufacturer Com Dev in Cambridge, Ont., was also among the dead. Com Dev CEO Michael Pley told CBC News Monday he would not do an interview or provide a photo of Barron out of respect for his family. He also declined to provide information on Barron's age or marital status.

However, Pley said Barron had worked at Com Dev for 14 years and was well liked. Fellow employees were in shock upon hearing the news of his death, and grief counsellors had been brought in to talk to them, Pley said.


Malcolm Johnson, of Nanaimo, B.C., 33, a realtor with Coast Realty, was among the five Canadians killed.

Another employee, Larry Smith, and his wife, whose name was not immediately available, were also at the hotel. Smith had surgery on his back and is recovering, but his wife was uninjured, Pley said.

At a press conference  Monday in Montreal, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon sent his condolences to the victims and their families.

Canadian consular officials are in Mexico and in close contact with authorities to assist the injured, many of whom are from Ontario, said Cannon.

"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]," said Cannon.

Many travellers had booked their package through WestJet. Richard Bartrem, the company's vice-president, told CBC News on Monday that it's extending assistance to travellers.

What is swamp gas?

Swamp gas, also known as marsh gas or landfill gas, is a biogas that's produced when organic material like dead vegetation rots in an oxygen-starved environment such as a swamp, marsh or peat bog.

Swamp gas sometimes has a "rotten egg" smell because of the presence of small amounts of hydrogen sulfide produced from the decaying matter. But the most common component of swamp gas is methane, a colourless, odourless and flammable gas. 

Experts have been cautious when it comes to blaming the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel explosion on a build-up of swamp gas.

"What does seem suspicious is how quickly that conclusion was reached and the fact that it's not a very common thing," University of Kentucky geologist Lee Florea told The Associated Press.

"It's not every day that you hear of these types of explosions, and if this were natural, it might be more frequent than that, considering the pace of development that has occurred in regions like that near the coastline."

"We did operate a rescue flight last night [Sunday] that departed from Calgary for Cancun," Bartrem said. "That aircraft, as well as grief counsellors, are being deployed to the hotel, and [we are] making the determination [if] there are guests who wish to return early.

"Last night, there were 25 people who did want to come home. The remainder had said, so far, that they did wish to stay on their vacation."

Early Monday evening, a plane carrying survivors landed in Toronto. Many of the travellers looked tired, but said they were pleased to be home, and sad that others had died.

Mexican officials are trying to determine the cause of the blast, which shattered windows and hurled chunks of metal and stone in all directions. Officials suggested a buildup of gas from a nearby swamp might have caused the powerful explosion.

Bella Coola, B.C., resident Ray Hern, who left the resort the day before the blast, said he smelled 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 on Monday morning.

"It was definitely methane."

Earlier reports said the blast occurred in the main check-in lobby but according to two Canadian eyewitnesses on the scene, the explosion happened in a lounge on the other side of the resort.

The resort was hosting a large number of Canadians, including at least one wedding party and a company vacation.

Many of those not injured by the blast checked out and headed back to Canada.


Papers, boxes and other debris on the lawn at the site of the explosion at a Playa del Carmen hotel. ((Reuters))

Ronald Argueta, who held his wedding at the resort on Wednesday, returned to Toronto after the blast.

He said he was having breakfast at a nearby restaurant when he heard a blast and felt a rumbling.

"There was a big cloud of smoke, and that's when the chaos started," he said. "People were running around, asking for medical assistance and stuff. That's when we knew it was really serious."

He told CBC he was just grateful that all of the guests who had travelled to Mexico for his wedding had returned safely.

Ramon Macias, another tourist who was at the hotel, said he doesn't know what caused the blast.

"It was scary, especially since you didn't know what happened," Macias said after returning to Toronto. "We didn't know if another area in the resort was going to explode as well, because they didn't say anything."

Sylvia Rodriguez, a Toronto resident who also was at the resort, said the Platinum Lobby was "destroyed."

Canadians in Mexico

Canadian citizens at the resort who need emergency consular assistance should contact the Canadian Consulate in Playa del Carmen at 52 (984) 803-2411.

They can also call the Department of Foreign Affairs emergency operations centre, collect, at 1-800-387-3124. An email can be sent to sos@international.gc.ca.

WestJet has also set up a hotline at: 1-866-786-6311.

"It's gone completely; there's nothing left," she said, noting that military and emergency officials arrived on the scene after the explosion.

She said her husband tried to help staff while she assisted with translation as staff scrambled to deal with the explosion.

"A lot of the people who work there didn't speak English, and they were asking me to please translate to others to stay away from the area," she said. "I think they need a little more training in their English, because it will help in case of an emergency like that."

Rodriguez said she feels blessed to be back and that her sympathy goes out to the families who lost loved ones.

"They go for a vacation; they're going to return with a casket. That's pretty sad," she said.

Cause uncertain

Speaking from Mexico, CBC's Linden MacIntyre said authorities have ruled out terrorism and bombs as a potential cause but are still trying to determine the exact cause of the blast.


A view of what one guest said is the swamp area can be seen from one of the rooms at the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel on Feb. 19, 2009. Authorities suspect a buildup of gas in the swamp might have caused Sunday's explosion at the resort. ((Submitted by a reader; name withheld by request))

"This is an area that depends to a huge extent on tourism, and they're very sensitive to anything that could undermine the tourist attraction here," he said.

Francisco Alor, attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state where the resort is located, said the initial investigations suggest the gas that exploded beneath the building was a mix of gases from a nearby swamp.

Alor told local media that investigations were underway 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."

Officials said no gas lines were located in the area where the blast occurred.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press