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Flood Carries Off 4 Buses in Mexico; Almost 200 Lost

September 18, 1988|Richard E. Meyer

MONTERREY, Mexico — A flash flood whipped into a rage by Hurricane Gilbert swept four buses carrying about 200 people off a suburban road here Saturday, and ambulances going to their aid were trapped by the treacherous water. By nightfall, the bodies of 32 people had been found. The dead included at least four policemen who tried to rescue the passengers.

All but 13 bus riders were missing and feared dead.

Gilbert collapsed into a tropical depression, less forceful than a tropical storm. It dumped heavy rain on the mountains near this important industrial city in northeastern Mexico and caused at least two deaths and severe damage in the villages of Soto la Marina and Carboneras, near the hard-hit Mexican Gulf Coast.

The storm blew rain and tornadoes into the United States as far east as Alabama, where at least one person died. Two others were killed in Texas.

Gilbert's dying gasp should bring heavy rains to the Rio GrandeValley before it heads north up the Mississippi River Valley, according to the National Hurricane Center in Florida. By midweek, the storm should be in the lower Ohio River Valley. It was expected to wind up around the Great Lakes as nothing more than foul weather.

In addition to the deaths in Monterrey and along the Mexican coast, the Associated Press reported that the storm had killed 29 people on the Yucatan Peninsula and 69 others in the Caribbean. The storm, once the most powerful in the history of the Western Hemisphere, came to life in the Caribbean one week ago.

In Monterrey, the hurricane surprised inhabitants and drivers along the Santa Catarina River, virtually dry for 30 years. The riverbed had been paved in places, and basketball and tennis courts were installed as part of a redevelopment project. Then, at 6 a.m. CDT Saturday, hurricane runoff from the mountains sent down a 40-m.p.h. torrent of water.

It caught the buses as they entered the suburban Monterrey neighborhood of San Pedro Garza Garcia, north of the city. They were driving along a roadway on the riverbank when the torrent hit, overflowed the embankment and pulled the buses down into the stream.

Gregorio Ayala, assistant managing editor of the Monterrey daily newspaper El Diario, quoted Cmdr. Alberto Silva of the Red Cross as calling it "human error." Ayala said one of the surviving passengers gave this account:

Patrolmen had guided the convoy of buses along part of the thoroughfare during minor flooding and then turned back, apparently unaware that the river had jumped its banks farther down.

"I guess they weren't aware the area was flooded," Ayala surmised.

The bus drivers headed into an "oncoming wall of water," then tried to maneuver and pull over--but were washed away.

Members of the judicial police force and a SWAT team called the Cobras tried to save those trapped in the toppled buses, Red Cross officials said.

Six of the rescuers died, according to Francisco Cobos, an El Diario reporter.

Among the dead was a police commander.

The other officers pulled several people from the water but were unable to reach many of the dead because the current was too strong, Ayala said. He said the water ran 30 to 40 feet deep in spots.

Cobos said the rainfall had crumbled the walls of the riverbed and undermined the road, a busy, major thoroughfare that parallels the river. He said the water, moving at an "incalculable speed," rose to "incredibly deep" levels--and finally washed over the top of the roadway.

It stalled the buses, he said, and dragged them into the stream.

"Someone called the police," he said. "They came and they had made some rescues" when the water accelerated and pulled the vehicles away.

"After that," he said, "they couldn't do anything more."

Six bodies were found 12 miles away, east of Monterrey, Cobos said. The search ranged as far as 30 miles downstream.

"Nobody knows where the others are," he said. "They're now looking for bodies."

The Associated Press said that the Red Cross counted 13 survivors among the bus passengers. Coroners in Monterrey and nearby Guadalupe put the confirmed dead at 32, the AP said. It attributed the total count of about 200 bus riders to police and Red Cross officials. And it cited a Cobra commander's count of police fatalities.

Farther downriver, five cars were smashed by water at an overcrossing and some washed into the stream, Cobos said. He said it could not be determined whether anyone was in the vehicles.

About 4,500 residents from some low parts of the city along the river had been evacuated, the Red Cross said. Several houses in a few colonias --shantytowns--bordering the river, below the site of the bus accident, were washed away, but with no apparent loss of life.

Maria Isabel Lerma, who lives about 8 blocks from the river, but on high ground, said that "many people lost everything."

During the heaviest rain, she said, the electricity failed for about six hours.

"It's more than 50 years since it's been like this," she said.

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