BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine firefighters thought they heard signs of life Wednesday as they hunted through the ruins of a 10-story apartment building destroyed by a gas explosion. But by late afternoon, no more victims were found in the blast that killed at least 11 people, injured more than 60 injured and left 11 unaccounted for.
Rescuers kept up an intense search, despite the danger that damaged towers alongside the rubble pile could collapse on top of them. They paused only for several minutes, while President Cristina Fernandez, just back from the United Nations, briefly visited the disaster site. She then left to boos and applause to visit some of the 22 hospitalized victims.
With heavy equipment largely blocked by the towers that remain standing, firefighters were mostly working by hand, using a sensitive listening device and body-sniffing dogs to try to reach an area two stories underground where they heard sounds that could have been from victims, said Marcos Escajadillo , the provincial security secretary in the city of Rosario.
"We're trying to work without making a sound or creating vibrations that could provoke a collapse of the other buildings," he told a crowd of reporters. At least 22 people remained hospitalized Wednesday. Fernandez declared two days of mourning, and politicians canceled their final campaign rallies ahead of Sunday's primary for the Oct. 17 congressional elections.
Meanwhile, a prosecutor and investigative judge were pursuing evidence of criminal negligence in the explosion, which damaged the center of Argentina's third-largest city. Repairman Carlos Osvaldo Garcia and his assistant, who were trying to repair the gas system Tuesday, were detained for questioning. One fled the scene moments before the blast, while the other tried to warn passersby, Judge Juan Carlos Curto said.
The Litoral Gas company said it had nothing to do with Tuesday's work, saying the men weren't company employees and no one had advised them to shut off the gas beforehand. Litoral Gas spokesman Jose Maria Gonzalez also said the company had received no complaints following a July 26 repair, after which an inspector agreed to turn the gas back on.
But residents of the three-towered apartment complex said they had complained for weeks of leaks and poor gas pressure to Litoral Gas, and that despite the work in July, their heaters and stoves weren't lighting up.
"So the residents' committee consulted with gas repairmen, and they said the valve had to be changed. That was the work they were doing," resident Marcos Morales told the city's La Capital newspaper. Judge Curto confirmed that Garcia is not directly employed by Litoral Gas, but said company records should help determine who is responsible.
"This isn't something that just happened yesterday, but rather it had been coming for days with different jobs by Litoral Gas and by repairmen, not just the detained one, and this resulted in yesterday's repair job that was directly linked to the explosion," Curto told reporters.
Garcia is overcome with grief and needs psychiatric support, said his defense lawyer, Hugo Bufarini. He said the licensed 20-year veteran repairman is certified by Litoral Gas to do this kind of work, and should not be singled out.
La Capital and other Argentine media interviewed the building's distraught doorman, identified only as "Pedro," who said he was with the repairmen when it happened. "It all happened so fast," the doorman said. "I was calling to 'emergencies' (911). I told the repairman that many people would die. He grabbed his things, climbed into the white truck and left."
"I didn't have time to tell people to get out," the doorman added. "I feel so sorry for not being able to help."