MONTERREY, Mexico - The death toll climbed as workers continued to pull bodies out of a burned casino in northern Mexico, where gunmen spread gasoline and ignited a fire that trapped and killed at least 53 gamblers and employees.
Family members gathered at the caution tape outside the Casino Royale after the Thursday afternoon fire in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, some crying and others yelling at police for providing no information. Later they were allowed to view bodies in the morgue to help identify the victims.
Francisco Tamayo, 28, of Monterrey, said he and family members looked at some 40 bodies in search of his mother, Sonia de la Pena, 47, who loved to gamble at the casino and was there on average four days a week. They had yet to find her.
When Tamayo learned of the fire from television, he first went to the scene.
"She's probably here," said Tamayo, who repeatedly called her cell phone, only to hear that it was out of the area of service.
Gov. Rodrigo Medina told the Televisa network late Thursday that the death toll had reached 53. The fire in a city that has seen a surge in drug cartel-related violence represented one of the deadliest attacks on an entertainment center in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in late 2006.
Calderon tweeted that the attack was "an abhorrent act of terror and barbarism" that requires "all of us to persevere in the fight against these unscrupulous criminal bands."
Attorney General Leon Adrian de la Garza said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he didn't name which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.
It was the second time in three months that the Casino Royale was targeted. Gunmen struck it and three other casinos on May 25, spraying the building with bullets, but nobody was reported injured in that attack.
The fire in the two-story casino was reported just before 4 p.m. local time, a slow time of day when normally about 80 people played the tables and slots, said former security guard Alberto Martinez Alvarado, 30. Martinez, who on his way home from work Thursday when he saw the fire, said the casino could hold hundreds, perhaps 1,000 people.
"We're lucky we weren't there," he said. "Why couldn't the people who did this do some honest work instead?"
State police officials quoted survivors as saying armed men burst into the casino, apparently to rob it, and began dousing the premises with fuel from tanks they brought with them. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons. De la Garza said the liquid appeared to be gasoline.
With shouts and profanities, the attackers told the customers and employees to get out. But many terrified customers and employees fled further inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said many of the bodies were found inside the casino's bathrooms, where employees and customers had locked themselves to escape the gunmen.
Authorities commandeered backhoes from a nearby construction site and made a brief attempt to break into the casino's walls as smoke billowed from the main entrance, hindering firefighters.
Maria Tomas Navarro, 42, stood weeping at the edge of the police tape stretched in front of the smoke-stained casino building. She was hoping for word of her brother, 25-year-old Genaro Navarro Vega, who had worked in the casino's bingo area.
Navarro said she tried calling her brother's cell phone. "But he doesn't answer. I don't know what is happening," she said. "There is nobody to ask."
Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, the city is seeing this year's drug-related murders on a pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before.
Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey. The attackers sprayed the bar with rounds from assault rifles, and police later found bags of drugs at the bar.
State police officials initially said witnesses reported hearing three explosions before Thursday's fire started, but later said a flammable material was used. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons.
The reports of explosions may have been the sound of the ignition of the liquid.
Norma Reyes, 45, was one of the people who received good news Thursday. Her son called her before she even heard about the fire to say he was all right. Jonathan Reyes, 25, who worked as an area supervisor, told his mother he was at the hospital trying to find out what happened to his co-workers.
"God took care of us today," she said.