Debris are seen scattered at the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Sunday Nov. 14, 2010. A powerful explosion believed to have been caused by an accumulation of gas killed six people, including four Canadian tourists, and injured 15, according to Quintana Roo state Attorney General Francisco Alor. (AP Photo)
updated 11/15/2010 8:33:47 PM ET 2010-11-16T01:33:47

The throngs of tourists from Canada and other nations came to the palm-fringed Grand Riviera Princess hotel for luxury vacations and seaside honeymoons. None suspected that this slice of paradise was apparently sitting atop a ticking time bomb.

The sprawling compound was built four years ago on a particularly swampy patch of Mexico's Caribbean coastline and may have been accumulating a deadly brew of explosive gases that ignited over the weekend, killing five Canadian visitors and two Mexican employees, officials said Monday.

Investigators are focusing their probe of Sunday's blast on gases from rotting vegetable matter or waste, although some experts consulted by The Associated Press said such a buildup would be unheard of.

Story: Mexico hotel blast kills 5 Canadians, 2 Mexicans

The official in charge of inspecting the 676-room resort in Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun, said the buildup was unexpected and went undetected in an inspection four or five months ago that included checks for dangerous gases.

Results from recent inspections "were quite good," Playa del Carmen Civil Defense director Jesus Puc said. He added, however, that the inspectors' equipment is designed to detect butane used in cooking, not the type of gas emitted by swamps.

Puc declined to specify what gas was likely involved or how long it took to accumulate in deadly amounts, saying those are questions to be answered in an investigation that is just beginning.

But he said authorities have requested new equipment capable of detecting swamp gases and plan to check other hotels in the area in the coming days.

Asked how many resorts could be at risk, Puc demurred, saying there are "many, many hotels in the area," though "not all of them have such swampy areas."

Ecologist and environmental activist Roberto Cudney called the explosion a predictable consequence of constructing resorts in the mangrove swamps that line the coast of the posh Riviera Maya.

"It makes complete sense," said Cudney, who works for the environmental group Mexico Silvestre, based on the island of Cozumel just offshore from Playa de Carmen. "When you build over the mangrove ... it doesn't take away the whole ecological process that's going on there. You still have water filtration, you still have a lot of organic material," the breakdown of which releases gas.

Some doubt
"It's just one of those things that weren't taken into account and now (Mexican authorities) are going, 'Oops,'" Cudney said.

Still, other experts cast doubt upon the swamp gas hypothesis.

Gabriela Lima, the head of the Environment Department for Quintana Roo state, where the resort is located, said the theory "sounds a bit strange."

"If that were the case, we'd have to see explosions throughout the Yucatan Peninsula every now and then, and we never have. This is something unique," Lima told the AP.

The hotel's construction permits for the hotel were in order, Lima said

Adriana Rivera of the Office of the Attorney General for Environmental Protection said that in the agency's 18 years of existence, there was no record of a similar incident in a hotel, adding that such blasts are typically seen in factories or places where caustic or flammable materials are stored.

Grand Riviera Princess representatives were not immediately available to take phone calls seeking comment Monday.

Sunday's blast blew out windows in a lounge area, littering the lawn with shards of glass and metal debris, and left behind a crater 3 feet (1 meter) deep.

Guests said it was so powerful it sucked the air out of the thatched-roofed buildings.

"The velocity of the air coming back was incredible, so people were thrown around all over the place in the rooms and hallways," said Carson Arthur, a 39-year-old from Toronto who was vacationing with six friends.

'Wounded from flying glass'
"There were several people in the debris. There was a lot of people wounded from flying glass," he said.

Among the dead was Malcolm Johnson, a real estate agent from British Columbia, who traveled to Mexico last week to get married, his friend David Komo said in an interview.

Johnson's new bride and 1-year-old daughter were with him in Mexico, Komo said.

Also killed were 41-year-old oil industry worker Chris Charmont and his 9-year-old son, John, from Alberta.

Family friend Tammi Garbutt said the two went down for something to drink right before the blast. Charmont's wife, Terra, and their 10-year-old daughter, Megan, stayed up in the room.

In addition to the dead, three Canadians and three Mexican employees remained hospitalized with injuries suffered in the blast. They were all in stable condition and were expected to recover, said Francisco Alor, attorney general of Quintana Roo.

Most guests were Canadians in town for a convention or sunny winter getaways.

Tourism to Mexico, the nation's No. 3 source of foreign revenue, has only recently begun recovering from a downturn caused by soaring drug violence, last year's swine flu epidemic and the world economic crisis.

Canada's foreign affairs minister stopped short of discouraging travel to Mexico.

"It's an unfortunate accident. There's been loss of life. And it is a tragedy," Lawrence Cannon said in a news conference Monday in Montreal. "But I am sure that within the next few weeks and months, the government of Mexico will be able to shed all of the light on this incident."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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