MEXICO CITY - A gas truck explosion demolished a maternity hospital in Mexico City on Thursday, killing two babies and a nurse, injuring dozens and prompting desperate mothers to grab their newborns as the building crumbled around them.
Hundreds of rescuers, some with dogs, dug through the rubble of the Maternity and Children's Hospital in the Cuajimalpa borough after the huge blast, though officials were hopeful that nobody remained trapped.
"I remember the cries of the babies under the rubble and the screams of my colleagues," said Ivonne Ortega, a nurse who was injured as she helped evacuate the newborns.
Mexico City Health Secretary Armando Ahued said a nurse and a baby died on the spot and a second baby succumbed from injuries in another hospital. He said 73 people were injured and that nine babies were in delicate condition.
Around three-quarters of the building collapsed after the blast, which took place around 7:00 am after workers were unable to control a pipe leak, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said.
The truck's three operators were detained, and two of them were hospitalised, Mancera added.
Their employer was identified as Gas Express Nieto, which as serviced 31 city hospitals since 2007. Many in Mexico get their gas delivered by propane trucks.
Mancera said a bigger tragedy was avoided because fewer people were in the hospital at that time and they had around 10 minutes to evacuate before the gas leak turned into an explosion.
Around 100 people were in the building, officials said.
As night fell, nobody was reported missing but Mancera said the search would continue into the evening.
Mothers save babies
Relatives of survivors recounted how mothers saved their babies.
Jose Eduardo Manriquez, 22, came out smiling from the Enrique Cabrera hospital, where his wife and newborn son were taken after the blast. They were both doing well.
"My wife grabbed the baby, turned over and the ceiling fell on her. It didn't hurt her," he said, adding that she complained of chest pains, which doctors attributed to gas inhalation.
His wife was rescued by a police officer and she walked out of the rubble barefoot.
Jose Miguel Venegas, 30, visited his 26-year-old wife and third son, who was born Wednesday night.
"She protected the baby. She held him in her arms and the ceiling fell on top of her," Venegas said, adding that she suffered face injuries.
Israel Santiago, a 29-year-old security guard, had a similar story.
"My wife says that the roof fell where she was. But luckily she was trapped between the bed and the crib with the boy in her arms. She protected him," he said.
Neighbors recounted smelling a strong odour of gas and then hearing an explosion that shattered house windows and caused doors to slam.
Adults with bloodied faces were rushed into ambulances.
Ivan Rodriguez, 28, said he was at home with his brother next to the hospital and thought an earthquake had hit the city.
"Suddenly I heard a big bang," he told AFP. "The house's doors opened as if they were kicked open and I shouted, 'Let's go, it's trembling!'"
History of gas blasts
President Enrique Pena Nieto expressed his "sadness and solidarity" with the victims and their families.
Pope Francis tweeted his condolences: "We pray for the victims of the explosion at the Cuajimalpa hospital, Mexico, and their relatives. May the Lord give them peace and strength." Mexico has been hit by other gas explosion tragedies in recent years.
In February 2013, 37 people died in the headquarters of the state energy firm Pemex in Mexico City following a gas buildup in the skyscraper's basement.
In May 2013, 25 people died when a gas tanker's container came loose on a highway north of Mexico City, setting nearby homes and cars on fire.