updated 2/6/2005 9:49:32 PM ET 2005-02-07T02:49:32

Eighteen people gathered in a mountain hostel in eastern Spain for a birthday party died in their sleep from an apparent gas leak, officials said Sunday.

The victims — ages 20 to 40 — were part of a larger group of about 50 people who had converged on the hostel for the party Saturday night. Most went home. But some decided to stay and slept in one of several large rooms at the hostel.

To keep themselves warm at night, they turned on a butane gas heater in the room, according to Valencia regional emergency workers. An apparent gas leak, or bad combustion from the heater, killed the revelers.

Two other people who slept in a separate room survived, Todolella Mayor Alfredo Querol told the private Radio SER.

The bodies were found by hostel workers Sunday afternoon. No details were released about how many of the dead were men or women.

“The judicial police are there investigating but from what I could see on first glance there doesn’t seem to be any other cause than the bottle of gas,” Querol said.

Distraught and weeping relatives and friends arrived late Sunday at a sports hall in the town where police and forensic experts told them what had happened. Civil Guards prevented journalists from entering the center and cordoned off the single mountain track to the hostel, about two miles outside the village.

The bodies were to be taken to a hospital in the nearby provincial capital of Castellon for autopsies later Sunday, police at the scene said.

Valencia’s regional president, Francisco Camps, who rushed to the town after hearing the news, said psychologists would be dispatched to the area to help the bereaved families. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also sent a message of condolence. A funeral Mass was to be held Monday at the nearby town of Morella.

The hostel, housed in a restored 15th-century hermitage outside this tiny hamlet of 140 inhabitants, is frequented by bikers, hikers and horseback riders.

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