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Survivor speaks out about explosion in Dominican Republic’s Old Market that killed 34 and injured 60

Terror gripped me as I became convinced the roof would collapse and I would die trapped in the aftermath. I began to pray for a sign – anything to lead me out. Suddenly, I glimpsed a light in the distance.

  • 8 months ago
  • September 21, 2023
5 min read
The wreckage of the explosion in a busy market in the Dominican Republic left dozens dead and injured, while the owner of Vidal Plast has been arrested. The wreckage of the explosion in a busy market in the Dominican Republic left dozens dead and injured, while the owner of Vidal Plast has been arrested. | Photo courtesy of Tito Sancri
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Junior Rafael Britos Reyes, 43, survived the explosion that rocked San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. He is a husband and father of two children and served as a metalworker in the shopping district. He sustained extensive injuries in the explosion and has since grappled with post-traumatic response. He has yet to go back to work.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
On Monday, August 14, 2023, in an area known as the “Old Market,” where crowds come daily to shop, an explosion leveled multiple buildings leaving at least 34 people dead and 60 injured. According to the experts, the explosion resulted from chemicals at a nearby plastic recycling facility. Three people have been arrested including the owner of Vidal Plast and his wife.

SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic —  On a typical Monday, I went to work at the machine shop and busied myself at the lathe while music played in the background. Suddenly, I felt my feet lift off the ground. The booming sound of an explosion startled me as yellow dust filled the air, covering everything. Before I could process what happened, a second explosion thundered through the shop, knocking me off my feet.

My head bounced off the wall behind me as heavy black smoke filled the room, obscuring my vision. With my assistant nearby, I felt my body shift into survival mode, and I focused on my breathing, attempting to remain calm. Struggling to find my footing in the dark, I extended my hands repeatedly, only to feel my fingers touching cement or iron. I couldn’t find a pathway out. 

Rubble fell around me as some kind of liquid dripped down my face. “It must be sweat,” I thought. Later, I would realize blood gushed out of a wound beside my ear.

Related: Refinery explosion rocks South African community 

I needed to find a way out before the walls collapsed and buried me alive

Terror gripped me as I became convinced the roof would collapse and I would die trapped in the aftermath. I began to pray for a sign – anything to lead me out. Suddenly, I glimpsed a light in the distance. Stepping over rocks, I followed the light, created by a burning piece of cloth. The flames lit the space just enough for me to see my way out. An animalistic instinct to live consumed me. Tripping over broken concrete, I scanned my surroundings and made my way toward an exit.

Despite incredible fear, an intuition guided me towards the door. My fingers traced its flat surface until they settled on a handle. I quickly turned it and pushed the door open, running out into the street. When I turned to see what happened to the building where I worked, my heart sank in my chest.

Everything around me was reduced to ashes. I knew immediately, people whose paths I crossed every day – people I cared about – were buried underneath the rubble. As I tried to process the horrible scene surrounding me, a sudden rush of adrenaline jolted me to my senses. I need to get out of there fast but first, I must look for survivors.

Noticing my assistant had not followed me, I ran back into the workshop and began calling out for him. My heart sank when he did not respond. He was just a 20-year-old boy. Afraid of the unstable wreckage trapping me again, I stepped back outside and spotted him, sitting across the street outside of the market.

The news said it was a chemical explosion due to poor ventilation 

I made my way in the direction of my assistant and passed a group of people huddled together. Looks of horror painted their faces when they saw me. Some of them shouted, “Oh my god!” I didn’t realize my body was covered in burns and abrasions, or that a gaping wound lay open on the side of my head. I tried to walk faster but a limp I had not noticied before hindered my progress.

Looking toward the ground, I saw my foot covered in blood. A memory flashed through my mind of a giant piece of rubble falling on it. I asked a person nearby to drive my assistant and I to the clinic. As the vehicle pulled away from the scene, I stared back at my workplace. I could feel my heart breaking.

I stayed at the clinic for some time and soon found myself struggling to process what I endured. My mind began blocking it out. Instead, questions rose to the surface. “How could this happen? What exploded?” I felt lucky to be alive. As my family arrived to see me, they began to recount details they heard on the news. Their reports, plus what I could find on social media, painted a picture of a grave situation – one I witnessed first-hand.

[According to reports, the owner of Vidal Plast and his wife were arrested in connection with the explosion. Vidal Plast is a company in the bustling shopping center that buys, sells, and recycles plastic. “The explosion was caused by an accumulation of highly flammable gases that could have been generated by the plastics and organic peroxide material stored at the company, according to a preliminary report by the firefighting department obtained by the AP.”]

Lingering trauma leaves victim worried about the future

When I learned about all the people who died in the explosion, I began to cry uncontrollably. I have not been able to sleep as the images haunt my mind. Several days after enduring that harrowing experience, the authorities called me in for questioning and asked me to meet them at my old place of work. My wife insisted on being with me. As we drove to the scene of the crime, I felt normal.

Then, when the street suddenly came into view, an intense panic took over, followed by a paralyzing fear. My head began to ache, and I felt unable to move. “Please take us home,” I said to my wife. I never want to go back there again and the pain I feel in my chest and my legs every morning reminds me of my trauma.

As I grapple with the injuries I sustained, I have yet to find a proper job. I am the primary earner in my family, and I worry incessantly about providing for my family and meeting their needs. Although I feel profound gratitude to be alive, I worry the trauma will never leave me. All I want is to put this in the past and begin to heal.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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