Spain grieves as gas kills 18 party-goers

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The Independent Online
EIGHTEEN FRIENDS who had booked into a country hotel near Spain's eastern town of Castellon for a birthday party were found dead yesterday, poisoned by butane gas from a canister.

The tragedy is the worst of its kind in Spain for more than 15 years, and shook the nation last night. The deaths are thought to have occurred when one of the party accidentally left open the tap on a gas cylinder used for cooking and heating.

The friends, aged between 20 to 40, were among a group of some 50 from neighbouring towns and villages, who had block-booked the rural lodging- house in Todolella for their celebration. Most went home but 18 stayed. Their bodies were found yesterday afternoon, but they are thought to have died of asphyxia during the night.

The sports hall in the tiny hamlet of 134 inhabitants was transformed into an improvised mortuary to await the arrival of family members. A team of psychologists has been sent to comfort relatives. Three people who survived were said to be in a state of deep shock. The leader of the Valencia region, Francisco Camps, and other regional politicians responsible for health and justice, rushed to the scene yesterday evening. They cancelled all official engagements for today.

Rural tourism is the latest booming sector of Spanish holidaymaking, and it is an increasingly popular custom for a group of friends to book up a modest country guesthouse, known as a casa rural, for a collective weekend break. The San Cristobal guesthouse, called Sant Cristofol in the Valencian dialect, where they died, is in the mountains some 100km inland from the provincial capital, Castellon. Owned by Todolella's town hall, the guesthouse dates from the 15th century and is popular as a base for hiking, mountain-biking, and horse-riding.

Yesterday's tragedy raises questions about safety conditions in the most rural parts of Spain. The picturesque isolation that people find so attractive often comes at the cost of being cut off from basic services such as networked natural gas. But faulty cylinders are also an urban problem. Large numbers of Spaniards still rely for their supply on bulky, heavy, cylinders known as bombonas which, though cheap and capable of being rigged up anywhere, are notoriously dangerous. Deaths from leaking bombonas are reported nationwide with alarming frequency, usually in poor homes, since those who can afford to do so convert to the gas network.

Often, faulty canisters trigger explosions that cause buildings to collapse as well as causing deaths. This incident is the most serious example of multiple deaths brought on by the stealthy leaking of gas inhaled over several hours.

Last month, three members of a family from Madrid, a couple and their seven-year-old daughter, were found dead from inhaling carbon monoxide in a flat in the town of Logrono, in the La Rioja region. The three had borrowed the flat from a relative to spend the Christmas holidays away from the capital.

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