PAPEETE, French Polynesia (August 1, 2000 – Oceania Flash/SPC)---High levels of toxic carbon monoxide from the exhaust of a pump engine used to clean an underground freshwater tank have been established as the most probable cause of the tragedy that killed seven Saturday on Arutua Atoll (Tuamotu-Gambier group of islands, northeast of Tahiti), the daily newspaper La Dépêche de Tahiti reports.

A team of five villagers was at work cleaning the community's freshwater tank, a common feature in French Polynesia's outer islands. They intended to remove stagnant water from the concrete tank, which measured 9 meters (29.7 fee) long, 7 meters (23.1 feet) wide and 4 meters (13.2 feet) deep but had no ventilation facility. When they failed to reappear, more people went down to rescue them and they, too, didn’t return.

The seven victims were buried on Sunday.

Sixteen people, some of them in a critical condition, are still recovering at the Mamao territorial hospital in Papeete, where they underwent urgent treatment in a decompression chamber (normally used for diving accidents known as the "bends") to replace carbon monoxide in their bodies with oxygen.

Mamao officials stated that none of the survivors' lives remain in danger from the accident.

It is the first time such an accident happened in French Polynesia.

Vice-President Edouard Fritch, who sent a condolence message to the tragedy-stricken families, said he was "shocked and sad" at the news.

Fritch and French High Commissioner Jean Aribaud went to Arutua atoll (populated by around 800 inhabitants) on Sunday and met the victims' families.

Most of the victims belong to the same family, the Parkers, who are traditionally engaged in the black pearl farming business.

Firemen sent from Papeete measured 90 percent carbon monoxide inside the tank where the seven perished.

Henere Parker was one of the few who felt dizziness coming on and came out of the hole just in time. But two of his brothers, Roo and Tehei, died.

"My eyes were itching atrociously. We were all suffocating. We had only a few minutes to survive," Pierre, another Parker family member, said.

"There was no smell. There was no smoke either. How would I know this tank was not full of air, but of carbon monoxide?" 27-year-old Gilbert Tepa, another survivor, said.

Meanwhile, two villagers obtained a scuba-diving air tank from the nearby pearl farm, went down and started retrieving the bodies, one by one.

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