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Father and son, newlywed killed in resort explosion

Lynda Huolt remembers speaking with her son and his young daughter in an online video call a few days before he set off to a sandy Mexican resort to get married.

Lynda Huolt remembers speaking with her son and his young daughter in an online video call a few days before he set off to a sandy Mexican resort to get married.

It would be the last time Huolt would speak with Malcolm Johnson, who was among five Canadians killed in a weekend explosion at a hotel in the resort city of Playa del Carmen on Mexico's eastern coast.

"We were Skyping and I was talking to my granddaughter, and the last thing I said to him was, 'Malcolm, please be safe. I love you, please be safe, take care of that baby — I don't want anything to ever happen to any one of you,'" Huolt said Monday in an interview from Prince George, B.C., where Johnson grew up.

"And he said, 'OK, mom, I love you,' and that was the last thing I said to him."

Johnson, 33, was killed when the explosion ripped through an area of the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel on Sunday morning. Four other Canadians and two Mexicans also died. Six Canadians were injured, two of them seriously.

Officials in Mexico blamed an underground buildup of methane and other gases from a nearby mangrove swamp, although some experts cast doubt on that theory. An investigation was underway as inspectors from the army, navy and civil defence agencies combed through the rubble looking for clues.

The explosion blew out windows in a lounge area and left behind a metre-deep crater, littering the lawn with concrete and metal debris and shards of glass. One guest said the blast was so powerful it sucked the air out of the thatched-roofed buildings and tossed around guests in nearby rooms and hallways.

Huolt first heard about the explosion Sunday night while watching the TV news, sparking a frenzy of telephone calls that eventually led her to the Canadian consulate in Mexico.

"I looked and I went, 'Oh my God, the kids are at the hotel,' because they showed the hotel, and I went into panic mode, right there," said Huolt.

"One of the fellows from Nanaimo happened to be there (at the consulate), and he said, 'I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Malcolm is dead.'"

Huolt said her daughter-in-law, Heather Pynten, and the couple's one-year-old daughter should be back home in Nanaimo in the next day or two. Huolt plans to meet her in the Vancouver Island city to help plan the funeral.

"Heather is holding up. My granddaughter is with her," said Huolt. "They got married on the 10th, Audrey had her first birthday on the 13th and he died on the 14th. It's tragic, it's just a tragic thing."

The other Canadians killed in the blast include Chris Charmont of Drumheller, Alta., and his nine-year-old son, John; Darlene Ferguson, 51, of Edmonton; and Elgin Barron of Guelph, Ont. Reports said a hotel bartender and a guard were also killed.

Tammi Garbutt, a family friend of the Charmonts, said Chris and John had gone to the hotel lobby while his wife, Terra, and their 10-year-old daughter were in their room.

After the explosion, Terra went to see what happened and was taken aside by a male guest who "took her under his wing," said Garbutt.

She described Charmont, a 41-year-old worker in the oil and gas industry, as a dependable, loving father.

"He definitely was a devoted family man. He lived for his family. Everything that he did revolved around his family," she said.

"John was in minor hockey and Chris was always involved in one way or another, whether he was assistant coach ... or the manager, he was just always there. You could always court on Chris to be there."

Crisis counsellors were at John Charmont's school on Monday to help his classmates.

"It's a personal loss for everyone," said Chris Connell, principal of Greentree Elementary School in Drumheller. "The younger kids they don't fully understand what's going on. It's the older kids that feel the loss."

Barron worked for an aerospace company in Cambridge, Ont.

"Elgin was very quiet. He grew beautiful roses. He had a motorcycle that he just loved to ride on the weekend," said Paul Robinson, who lives across the street.

"He was a good neighbour. He always had a smile and a wave. ... He was the kind of neighbour you'd like to have, there to count on."

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in Montreal that he expects an investigation by the Mexican government to shed more light on the cause of the explosion. More than one million Canadians head to Mexico every year.

"In this case, obviously, the government of Mexico will be doing the analysis, but for all intents and purposes we understand that this is an accident," Cannon said.

A WestJet spokesman said a plane carrying vacationers from the resort was expected to arrive in Calgary late Monday or early Tuesday.

Robert Palmer said between two and three dozen passengers have opted to end their vacations early, and the airline has sent a plane down to get them, along with more than a dozen staff members and crisis counsellors.

Carson Arthur of Toronto, another guest at the hotel, said the hotel is "running as normal" but he and many of the other Canadian guests plan to finish their vacations.

"The hotel has done a very good job at diffusing the situation," said Carson. "They've managed the flow of information to the guests. While the atmosphere at the hotel is much more sombre, I think most guests are falling into a routine that they're comfortable with."

But Carson said for the travellers whose family members died in the explosion, information has been sparse.

"The big problem that we're aware of — and I've been speaking to many of the Canadians — they weren't given any information on their lost loved ones until early this morning," he said.

"The bodies went to four different hospitals. Nobody communicated with the Canadians as to which hospital their family members were in until this morning."

Friends and relatives in Canada seeking information on Canadian citizens believed to be at the hotel should contact Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT)’s Emergency Operations Centre by calling 1-800-387-3124. They can also email sos@international.gc.ca.

— With files from Nelson Wyatt in Montreal, Ken Trimble in Edmonton, Bill Graveland in Calgary, Ciara Byrne in Toronto, Jennifer Ditchburn in Ottawa and The Associated Press

 
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