TIJUANA — Families of the 12 people who died in a spiritualist prayer meeting gone awry held wakes for their dead Saturday, disbelieving and angry at the official finding that the victims died of accidental asphyxiation brought on by a malfunctioning butane lantern.
"Put down that justice needs to be done here, that someone is to blame and that somehow those of us who did not die will find an answer," said Fidel Mondragon, 61, who was one of an extended family of 20 who came from East Los Angeles to mourn and bury his daughter, her husband, and both their children.
Tijuana coroner's officials declared Friday that, based on preliminary autopsies, the 12 had died of carbon monoxide poisoning after being enclosed in a four-room house during an overnight religious ceremony led by Federico Padres Mexia, a 61-year-old self-styled spiritualist.
"It was definitely an accident," a deputy prosecutor said.
On Saturday, however, doctors attending six people who survived the ceremony appeared nearly as skeptical of the official cause of death as the victims' relatives. Two of the survivors may have been bruised or beaten during the evening rite. Others, doctors said, suffered unexplained burns.
"As a doctor, it's hard for me to accept carbon monoxide as the exclusive explanation," said Dr. Ariel Perez Munoz, director of Social Security Clinic 20, a public hospital. Doctors said all the survivors had symptoms, such as highly acidic blood and a swelling of the eyes, that were not necessarily caused by carbon monoxide poisoning alone.
Perez Munoz suggested that a combination of factors--including carbon monoxide, methanol possibly ingested during the ceremony and perhaps another poison--probably caused the tragedy.
Blood samples have been turned over to the San Diego Medical Examiner for further tests, but Perez Munoz stressed that they may be inconclusive because the victims were found several hours after they had fallen unconscious.
"I feel that we are never going to find an explanation of exactly what occurred," he said.
Relatives gathered Saturday at the government-run funeral home--where burial services were provided for about $250 a person--seeking someone or something to blame. Most were convinced someone--whether part of a suicidal mission or murder--had tried to kill their families.
If the 12 died from a lantern, they asked, why were screams of pain coming from Mexia's house that night? Why did a the daughter of one of the victims stand guard and refuse to let anyone in, claiming Jesus Christ was descending? Why did a survivor speak of drinking from a fruit punch that made people sick?
"We're poor people, we're humble people, but we won't let them fool us into believing that this was an accident," said Jesus Moreno, who lost a 14-year-old sister and whose mother is in a coma. "I plan to fight this. This is a great injustice."
Answers to the mystery may lie with the six survivors, but three, including Mexia, are in apparently irreversible comas. The other survivors are an 8-month-old baby and two men who remain semi-coherent and who may have suffered some brain damage, doctors say.
One is Moises Merida Gonzalez, 32, who had lain incoherent until Saturday, when he spoke, for the first time, with a reporter. He had a black eye and other facial injuries. Asked what had happened to him, he answered only, "I was beaten." Then he sat up and pulled his shirt over his head.
Merida Gonzalez was the only victim who was not found in Mexia's home on Thursday morning. He arrived at the hospital that night, and told medical staff that he had escaped from the ritual during the night.
Survivor Alfredo Osuna Hernandez, 22, whose wife is one of the dead, is still dazed by the grief and the after-effects of the rite. He said in a short interview Saturday that he did not understand what had caused the tragedy. He had a cut on his face and bruises on his shoulder, but said he could not remember how he got them. The last thing he could remember was several people, including his wife, starting to vomit.
Asked why the group didn't disband and go for help, he said, "We could not leave, it would be harmful." No one, he added, wanted to leave.
He arrived at Mexia's house early Wednesday evening for a ceremony in which he hoped to ask the Virgin Mary for help in finding a job. He had been attending the spiritualist's rituals for about four months and said he had already seen the Virgin and God at some of those sessions.
Mexia promised a special session on Dec. 12, however, because it was the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. "He (Mexia) said we would see many things. The Virgin. God. Saints. Many things."