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Ecuador Sifts Through Blast Rubble

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Ecuador Sifts Through Blast Rubble

Thu Nov 21,10:27 PM ET

By GONZALO SOLANO, Associated Press Writer

RIOBAMBA, Ecuador (AP) - Ecuadorean highlanders searched through remnants of their homes Thursday after an army ammunition depot exploded and set off blasts that ripped through a neighborhood. At least seven people were killed and more than 140 injured.

The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air a day after the explosions shattered windows, knocked down brick walls, and ripped roofs from homes across seven blocks in this mountain city of 150,000 people.

"We're headed for the countryside," resident Elsa Fandi said as she carried her 2-year-old son, his forehead cut by glass shards. "We're getting out of here."

President Gustavo Noboa visited the city Thursday and declared a state of emergency.

The 20-minute chain of explosions began Wednesday afternoon when a hand grenade went off and detonated the ammunition dump at a tank base in Riobamba, 100 miles south of Quito in a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. Noboa said the grenade was accidentally dropped during an inspection at the storage site.

Most of the injuries resulted from flying glass fragments, according to the Red Cross. Three soldiers and a civilian were killed on the base. The other three fatalities were in the city.

Witness said they initially thought the explosion was an earthquake or the eruption of the 16,500-foot Tungurahua volcano, 20 miles to the northeast.

"There isn't a house in Riobamba without a broken window," Riobamba Mayor Fernando Guerrero said.

The explosion also knocked out telephone service and power in the city, hampering overnight rescue efforts.

Streets remained littered with shattered glass and scattered ammunition, some of it unexploded.

Dozens of men and women, some of them in ponchos and the felt fedoras popular in the Andean highlands, waited by the army base's closed gates in search of information about missing relatives.

The base is home to the Galapagos Armored Brigade and about 1,500 soldiers.

The explosion came four days before Sunday's runoff election for president. Former coup leader Lucio Gutierrez has led millionaire businessman Alvaro Noboa in recent polls. The winner will replace the president Noboa, who took office following a 2000 coup spearheaded by Gutierrez.

The president said he asked election officials to suspend voting in Riobamba to give residents time to repair their homes.

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