Authorities are investigating an explosive fire that claimed the lives of two children, ages 5 and 13, at a Shell gas station Saturday in Escazú, a suburb southwest of San José.
According to Esteban Ramos, head of the Firefighter Corps’ Engineering Department, part of the National Insurance Institute (INS), an employee was changing a filter on one of the gas pumps when gasoline began spurting from the machine.
Ramos told The Tico Times that investigations thus far indicate that at least one vehicle that pulled up to the pumps was still running and likely produced a spark that set the gasoline ablaze.
The two children, identified as André and Nicole González, were trapped in the back seat of a vehicle that was next to the pumps when the fire started. Witnesses said the mother, Gloriana Umaña, who was outside the car when the fire began, tried to pull her children from the vehicle through the window, but couldn’t get them out, Ramos explained. Flames quickly consumed the car and bystanders held the hysterical woman back from her burning car, concerned for her safety, he said.
“Remember that the approximate speed of a gasoline fire is around three meters per second and the vehicle was about six meters from the pumps. In two seconds the flames had reached the car,” Ramos said, adding that apparently gasoline had spilled under the vehicle and had been sprayed on it.
The mother, a gas station attendant and another client were all taken to the hospital with first- and second-degree burns, Ramos added.
According to the daily Al Día, Umaña was taken to the San Juan de Dios Hospital in downtown San José in a state of shock, and several police officers who where on the scene and held the mother back from the burning vehicle were treated by a psychologist following the emotional scene.
The two siblings were laid to rest Sunday at El Carmen Cemetery in San Antonio de Escazú, where hundreds turned out to grieve and bid farewell.
The children’s mother is planning to file criminal and civil suits against the gas station owner, her lawyer Gino Capella told Channel 7 TV News Wednesday. The family is also considering filing charges against Shell’s head office.
The OIJ and a government prosecutor are investigating the employee who changed the filter, Gerardo Quirós, after questions surfaced about whether filters should be changed while pumps are open. Quirós could face charges for involuntarily disaster, which carries sentences of up to six years for every person killed or injured in the accident. For now, Quirós must sign in with authorities every 15 days, have a fixed address and is barred from leaving the country.
Quirós’ wife, Cindy Zúñiga, told the daily Al Día that her husband has worked at the gas station for 10 years, and worked away from the gas pumps changing the oil on vehicles.
The legal department of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) is also investigating whether the concession of the gas station by Shell to a third party was authorized, the daily Al Día reported.
Shell Costa Rica released a statement the day of the accident expressing condolences for the death of the two children and support for those who were injured. The statement said the company is cooperating with the government investigation and conducting its own, “not only to determine what caused the accident, but also to take immediate measures to avoid the repetition of such regrettable situations as this.”
Shell later announced it will not be answering any further questions from the press.