109 dead as Hurricane Pauline batters Mexico

European holidaymakers were among tens of thousands stranded in Acapulco yesterday after Hurricane Pauline tore through the city, closing down the port and airport. As Phil Davison reports, the weather phenomenon known as El Nino may be to blame.

At least 109 people were killed yesterday as Hurricane Pauline hit Mexico's Pacific coast in and around the country's best-known resort, Acapulco.

European holidaymakers, including some on Pacific cruise stopovers, were among those stranded after the port and airport were closed and all communications were cut.

One large cruise liner, said to be called the Veendam, sailed from the port with 2,000 passengers and crew on board through raging seas shortly before the hurricane hit. Port officials were trying to find out whether the vessel was safe.

The British embassy in Mexico City was also trying to find out if any Britons were among the casualties.

Most tourists took shelter in the basements of tall hotels along the Acapulco seafront which appeared to have remained intact. The victims were mostly residents of shanty towns, on the hills overlooking the bay, which sprung up as Mexicans swarmed to the resort to work in the tourism industry.

Others were swept away as 30ft waves and rain, driven by 150mph winds turned the busy seafront Costera Avenue into a fast-moving 3ft river of sludge, pushing cars along like toys. Rescue workers faced the danger of satellite dishes, ripped from hotel roofs, cutting through the air like flying saucers. It was the worst disaster in the area since an earthquake in September 1985, with its epicentre in Acapulco, killed thousands - mostly in the capital Mexico City.

Officials in Acapulco declared a state of emergency an urged people to stay indoors, but stunned residents emerged to watch the river of mud sweep by. "Bodies are appearing on all sides. Rescue workers are only just starting to clear them away," said a local correspondent for the state TV network Televisa. "This is a serious situation. People are scared."

The Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who is in Germany on a state visit, ordered an emergency rescue plan into force, co-ordinated by three cabinet ministers.

From Acapulco, a favoured playground for Mexican millionaires, Pauline moved up the Pacific coast, hitting other popular resorts including Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo and Puerto Escondido. It was expected to hammer the resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo by today, reaching as far north as Baja California, south of the US border, by the weekend.

According to meteorologists, the severity of the hurricane may have been partly due to El Nino, the weather phenomenon that warms Pacific waters and makes storms more frequent and has wreaked havoc in Papua New Guinea.