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11 are dead after a church roof collapses in Mexico

Rescue workers search for survivors amid debris after the roof of a church collapsed during a Sunday Mass in Ciudad Madero, Mexico, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.
Jose Luis Tapia
/
AP
Rescue workers search for survivors amid debris after the roof of a church collapsed during a Sunday Mass in Ciudad Madero, Mexico, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

Updated October 2, 2023 at 7:59 PM ET

CIUDAD MADERO, Mexico — Father Ángel Vargas was moving pew to pew baptizing children when a tie beam gave way bringing his church's roof crashing down on dozens of people gathered there, killing at least 11 but sparing himself and some others.

Vargas recounted Sunday's harrowing collapse in northeast Mexico to Radio Formula Monday.

"Some people could get out and others no," said Vargas, who described how the roof did not collapse in some areas like around the altar, allowing himself and others to escape. "It is a terrible experience and it has been even worse because of the fact that people were lost."

Many of those gathered at the Santa Cruz church in Ciudad Madero Sunday afternoon were elderly and children, because there were about five baptisms taking place. The toll could have been much higher, because a short time earlier some 300 people had been in the sanctuary for Mass.

State officials said Monday afternoon that 13 people remained hospitalized with two of those in serious condition. Earlier Monday, an 18-year-old woman succumbed to her injuries.

Authorities called off the search early Monday. After initially fearing that dozens could still be trapped under the rubble, searches led them to believe no one remained unaccounted for.

Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal said trained dogs and thermal imaging cameras had been used to search under the collapsed concrete.

"The most likely thing, I can't affirm it 100%, is that there aren't any more people trapped," Villarreal said. Describing the efforts by dogs and rescue teams, he said "there are no indications of life inside the collapsed area."

That optimism will be put to the test when cranes start lifting chunks of the collapsed slab off the floor and the tops of pews.

Three of the dead were children, and on the list of people who had been injured were a 4-month-old baby, three 5-year-olds and two 9-year-olds.

"Unfortunately, the elderly and children were those who suffered the most, the ones who were most trapped, the ones who suffered the most deaths, I think," said Father Pablo Galván, a priest who was just outside in the church parking lot Sunday when the collapse occurred. He had just finished celebrating the main Mass.

Describing that moment, Galván said "the roof just simply and plainly collapsed, like an implosion, like when you crush a can."

"It fell, there was no time to do anything. It was like two seconds. We still can't understand what happened," Galván said.

Questions immediately turned to why the concrete and brick structure failed so suddenly. Security camera footage from about a block away showed the unusual, gabled roof simply collapsed downward. The walls did not appear to have been blown outward, nor was there any indication of an explosion, or anything other than simple structural failure.

The state security spokesman's office said it appeared to be "a structural failure." But Gov. Villarreal said no problems with the church had been reported previously.

"It was over 50 years old, it was here functioning and operating with no problem, with no sign of any defect," Villarreal said.

The roof appeared to be made of relatively thin poured concrete, and photos distributed by state authorities showed the roof slab resting on the top of pews in some parts of the church. That may have left enough space to have saved some lives.

Building collapses are common in Mexico during earthquakes, but the National Seismological Service did not report any seismic activity strong enough to cause such damage at the time of the collapse. Nor was there any immediate indication of an explosion.

Ciudad Madero is about 310 miles (500 kilometers) south of Brownsville, Texas. Tamaulipas is known for drug cartel violence, but Ciudad Madero is in the southern part of the state near neighboring Veracruz state and has been less touched by the violence.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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