The 20th Anniversary
The Events 20 Years Ago

March 31st, 1980
The Washington Post

"40 Killed in San Salvador;
40 Killed at Rites For Slain Prelate; Bombs, Bullets Disrupt Archbishop's Funeral"
By Christopher Dickey, Washington Post Foreign Service 
Monday, March 31, 1980 ; Page A1

SAN SALVADOR, March 30, 1980 -- A solemn funeral mass for the assassinated archbishop of San Salvador turned into a panic-driven hell today that left at least 40 people dead in the Salvadoran capital's cathedral and the huge square outside.

More than 50,000 people, many of them old women and children, had gathered in the plaza with only a contingent of Boy Scouts as security guards when a bomb explosion, followed by wild bursts of gunfire, sent then fleeing for cover.

Scores of people were trampled as the vast crowd tried to escape to sanctuary in the church. But they were blocked by an eight-foot high fence and closed gate intended to provide security for the ceremony, taking place at the top of the steps leading to the church.

Many of those who died were crushed against the steel fence. Dozens were injured. Others were able, as I did, to climb the fence to seek safety inside.

Mexico's Cardinal Ernesto Corripto Ahumado, the representative of Pope John Paul II at the funeral, was delivering his tribute to slain archbishop Oscar Romero when the first bomb went off. Within seconds, wild bursts of gunfire erupted across the massive square.

As the panicked crowds surged outside, and many rushed into the already packed cathedral, Romero's body was taken to a crypt below the sanctuary and buried.

The archbishop was killed by a gunman Monday night as he was saying a memorial mass for a friend's mother. He died within minutes.

A highly popular and controversial figure and outspoken critic of the military that has long dominated this Central American nation, Romero was looked upon as one of the few people who could keep the violence-ridden society from plunging into all-out civil war.

Whether his assissin came from the political left or from the right is not known. Neither is there any certainty about who started today's violence.

Eyewitnesses who had taken different vantage points on balconies surrounding the plaza gave differing accounts of how it began.

Several maintain that the initial explosion was a "propaganda bomb" set off by the heavily armed members of leftist militant organizations that had marched in among the crowd only a few minutes earlier. These bombs are often used by the militants to launch leaflets into the air.

One corpse that I saw later near where the first explosion appeared to take place was of a man whose hand had been blown away by a bomb that he carried. Other witnesses also believe that the explosion came from this man's general direction. Whether the bomb he carried accidentally exploded and set off the chaos or whether he was subsequently shot and the bomb then exploded was unclear.

The reporter who was standing on a high balcony of the cathedral says that bombs and shots first issued from the National Palace, which faces onto the same plaza as the cathedral. Soldiers were known to have been stationed within that building.

However, that account was not corroborated by other witnesses, and there was no evidence of uniformed military men anywhere near the scene before, during or immediately after the incident.

From visits to hospitals and the morgue after restoration of order, it appeared that the vast majority of wounded and dead were victims either of being trampled outside the church or asphyxiated within. Fewer than 10 of the confirmed deaths were from bullet wounds.

According to church officials, the militant left-wing groups had promised not to cause any incident during the funeral service.

The armed forces also had announced their intentions of keeping a low profile throughout the ceremony. The atmosphere was so tense, however, that no matter where the first explosion and shots came from, disaster followed, by reflex action of the crowd. I was standing between the church gates and the roped-off crowd when I heard the first explosion.

The masses of people had pressed so tightly against the rope barricade, manned only by Salvadoran Boy Scouts, that several had already been overcome by the noon heat and been taken away.

The crowd for most of the morning had been waving palm fronds on this last Sunday before Easter and singing along with a folk choir on the steps, "You are the God of the Poor."

At first the explosion took the crowd by surprise. Few people moved. I saw leaflets flying in the air and assumed they had been launched by a bomb. But then came other explosions and a series of shots, apparently none of them from automatic weapons.

I clambered over the fence and up the steps, past the archbishops's coffin toward other reporters and the clergy at the cathedral entrance.

Visiting Roman Catholic dignitaries from most of Latin America were there, including Nicaragua's foreign minister, Miguel D'Escoto, who is a priest. The Mexican cardinal stopped his homily and the clerics began to call to the crowd to stay calm.

But the shots continued, their frequency rapidly increasing. Still the bishops steadfastly blocked the doors to the cathedral while the crowd began to surge toward the gates.

I was in the midst of the clerics now, looking out over the square as suddenly cars at every corner began to explode in flames.

The crowd was pressing toward the steps now in complete panic. At the western edge of the plaza I could see young men taking prone positions on the street to fire at any snipers or whatever troops might advance.

The square, which had been packed moments before, was suddenly mostly empty as people tried to escape the shooting and fell into the crush at the closed church gates.

A bishop standing beside me seemed utterly calm, repeating over and over in an Irish accent to those around him, "Don't panic, don't panic."

But by then shots could be heard all around the square and on every side of the cathedral and the clerics gave way to the crowd and fell back, knocking the empty chair of the archbishop to the ground as they pressed inside.

Within a few minutes, perhaps 7,000 people had forced themselves into the cathedral which usually holds no more than 3,000.

I went to the stairs inside to work my way up to a higher vantage point and found them already guarded by young, masked left-wing opponents of the government.

Soon I was caught in the suffocating mass of humanity along with three other reporters I had managed to find. We linked arms to stay together and finally to keep some women near us from being crushed.

Weeping children were being carried on their parent's shoulders. Some people collapsed onto the floor near us and disappeared. One weeping young woman near me prayed to God that she would not die. Everywhere people could be seen in prayer. Once there was a cheer for the "unity of the people" but afterwards nothing but tears and pleas.

Explosions could be heard repeatedly near the three entrances to the cathedral. People inside, unable to see what was going on beyond the walls of the massive, unfinished building, expressed fear that the armed forces would arrive and enter the cathedral to get at the armed militants. Direct firing into the church inevitably would have killed scores of people.

Young guerrillas stationed themselves in strategic points around the building. On one side of the cathedral, one young woman crouched in the door spraying bullets from a U.S.-made M16 rifle out onto the streets.

The priests and Boy Scouts inside the cathedral tried desperately to keep order as one person after another succumbed to heat and panic. Within a few minutes hundreds of shirts were being twirled through the air as makeshift fans.

An ailing old man and a child were being carried behind me by people trying to get them to some open space. Over the course of 30 minutes, they moved no more than 15 feet in the tremendous immobile compression of people. Finally, the old man lost consciousness.

Eventually I was able to make my way to the stairwell and up to the balconies as young guerrillas directed people past the areas most dangerously exposed to the outside.

In the choir loft was the bishop of Cuernevaca, Mexico, Sergio Mendez, known for his liberal views. Shots were echoing nearby as he told reporters, "I think it is fitting that we, the bishops who came to honor Romero, should suffer the same situation as his people."

After almost an hour, the shooting tapered off and several reporters, including myself, decided to go into the streets.

There was still no evidence of the military, but some bodies were being carried away. Leaflets were everywhere, and littered among them were hundreds of shoes lost by people who had scrambled over the cathedral fence.

At the large Rosales Hospital a few miles away, scores of people, some of them wounded, many of them crushed, lay unconscious or in agony. The mops of the cleaning women were everywhere drenched in the blood spilled on the floor.

One woman, her pelvis broken, screamed continuously. Another man, with a wound from a large-caliber weapon in his shoulder, said he had just been stepping off a bus when the shots opened up on him from what seemed like three sides. He had no idea who was firing them.

A young schoolteacher, unable to walk after being trampled by the crowd before the gates of the cathedral -- her arms and face a mass of bruises -- said. "We didn't think anything like this would happen. Not then, not during a religious service. Never. Never."