TULTEPEC, MEXICO – The San Pablito fireworks market was especially well stocked for the holidays and bustling with hundreds of shoppers when a powerful chain-reaction explosion ripped through its stalls, killing at least 31 people and leaving dozens more badly burned.
The third such blast to ravage the market on the northern outskirts of Mexico’s capital since 2005 sent up a towering plume of smoke that was lit up by a staccato of bangs and flashes of light. Once the smoke cleared, the open-air bazaar was reduced to a stark expanse of ash, rubble and the charred metal of fireworks stands, casting a pall over the country’s Christmas season.
Mexico State health officials said about 60 people were hospitalized for injuries from Tuesday’s explosion, including for severe burns, in some cases over 90 percent of their bodies. On Wednesday, 47 people remained hospitalized, among them, 10 children. Authorities have not yet said what may have caused the explosions that took place in Mexico State, which rings the capital.
The Mexico State government said Wednesday the death toll rose to 31, after five people died at local hospitals. Mexico State chief prosecutor Alejandro Gomez said some of the dead were so badly burned that neither their age nor their gender could be immediately determined. He said the toll could rise because 12 people were listed as missing and some body parts were found at the scene.
A list of the nine bodies identified so far showed one of the dead included a 3-month-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. Gomez said a total of seven male minors were among the dead.
Survivor Crescencia Francisco Garcia said she was in the middle of the grid of stalls when the thunderous explosions began. She froze, reflexively looked up at the sky and then took off running through the smoke once she realized everyone was doing so. As she ran she saw people with burns and cuts, and lots of blood.
“Everything was catching fire. Everything was exploding,” Francisco said. “The stones were flying, pieces of brick, everything was flying.”
Sirens wailed and a heavy scent of gunpowder lingered in the air well after the thunderous explosions at the market, which were widely seen in a dramatic video. The smoking, burned-out shells of vehicles ringed the perimeter, and first responders and local residents wearing blue masks over their mouths combed through the ash and debris. Firefighters hosed down still-smoldering hotspots.
Cesar Ornelas of Atizapan de Zaragoza was only 10 minutes into shopping with his son and his father when he heard the first explosions. He tried to run, but something knocked him to the ground from behind. He tried several times to get up, unsuccessfully, and ultimately his 15-year-old son Francisco had to drag him out.
“We didn’t look back,” said Ornelas, who suffered light burns and a large bruise over his left kidney. His white tank top had a fist-size burn on the chest. “We heard how the explosion was kind of going off bit by bit.”
Nearly four hours later, he and Francisco limped gingerly out of the market area. Francisco said paramedics told him his leg was likely fractured by flying debris. Ornelas said his 67-year-old father, Ernesto, had run in a different direction and sought refuge in a nearby home. All of the father’s clothing was burned, and his face and arm were bloodied. An ambulance had spirited him to a hospital, but Ornelas wasn’t sure where it was or how serious his injuries were.
Tultepec Mayor Armando Portuguez Fuentes said the manufacture and sale of fireworks is a key part of the local economy. He added that it is regulated by law and under the “constant supervision” of the Defense Department, which oversees firearms and explosives.
“This is part of the activity of our town. It is what gives us identity,” Portuguez said. “We know it is high-risk, we regret this greatly, but unfortunately many people’s livelihoods depend on this activity.”
For Juana Antolina Hernandez, 49, the fireworks market was the family business, passed on from generation to generation. Hernandez has run a stand for 22 years next to one operated by her parents.
On Wednesday, Hernandez was one of the disconsolate residents waiting outside the local morgue, looking for missing relatives.
“I can’t find my father, and my mother is very badly burned,” said Hernandez. “I am waiting here (at the morgue) for them to tell me if my father is here, but up to this point, nothing.
“Everything is gone,” she said of the market, which she escaped in a mad dash when the explosions began. “I know we lost everything, but I am going to start over.”
A similar fire engulfed the San Pablito Market in 2005, touching off a chain of explosions that leveled hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico’s Independence Day. A year later, a similar accident at the same market also destroyed hundreds of stands.
Deadly fireworks explosions have occurred with some regularity in Mexico: In 2002, a blast at a market in the Gulf coast city of Veracruz killed 29; in 1999, 63 people died when an explosion of illegally stored fireworks destroyed part of the city of Celaya; and in 1988, a fireworks blast in Mexico City’s La Merced market killed at least 68.
In an editorial Wednesday, the newspaper El Universal called it “the traditional tragedy,” noting “our country’s fascination with fireworks has caused, among other things, a long series of accidents with terrible results.”
Three times Celso Monroy has witnessed the San Pablito fireworks market erupting into a fireball of pungent smoke, blinding flashes and ear-splitting explosions.
On Tuesday, Monroy again escaped with his life, but for the first time there were bodies strewn about as he rushed to rescue his family from the scenes of carnage emerging from shattered stalls that had bustled with Christmas cheer moments earlier.
At least 32 people died and dozens were injured when the huge fireworks bazaar on the northern fringe of Mexico City exploded in a dazzling array of lethal pyrotechnics that razed the marketplace to a blasted plain of smoking rubble.
In little over a decade, the country’s most celebrated fireworks market in Tultepec has blown up three times, with the latest massive blast raising serious questions about why the festive public was again exposed to such deadly risks.
“This was the biggest and the worst,” Monroy, 41, decked out in a cowboy hat and boots, said after his last escape. “It was really loud, like a bomb. Lots of people were running and looking for help, and those we could get out, we got out.
“There were lots of colors, I can’t say it was beautiful because of the sadness and loss,” said Monroy, who has spent more than a decade making rockets and fireworks at the market. “There are no winners here. There’s nothing here.”
As the wind kicked up around lunchtime, tiny funnels of wind whipped through the wasteland, lifting trash, dust and burned fragments into a series of dancing columns.
Alan Jesus Chavez, a local medical student who rushed to the scene as the blasts went off and the market stalls blazed, worked to pull people out of the burning ruins.
While handing out milk and water, a woman came to his side to ask him to free her baby, who was trapped under rubble.
“But when we got everything off and found the baby, it was already dead,” said Chavez, who felt the pulse of five of the people who lost their lives. “When I got out of here and got home, I cried because of all the dead people I had seen.”
The government has yet to say what sparked the tragedy, noting only that there were six separate blasts. Federal investigators pored through the wreckage for clues on Wednesday.
Local resident Ivan Perez, 23, whose girlfriend works at the market, said there was a rumor that the explosions began when a woman accidentally dropped a “brujita,” a kind of banger.
Such was the economic importance of the bazaar to locals, he said, that bribes were sometimes paid to sell fireworks not permitted by official regulations, Perez said.
But after the third tragedy in just over a decade, the market’s prospects looked grim, he added.
“I don’t think it will get back on its feet,” he said.
In 2005, fireworks maker Monroy was just leaving when the explosions broke out; nearly a year later, he was standing on a bridge overlooking the market when the sky lit up again.
On Tuesday, Monroy had gone outside the surrounding fence to fix his bike when the sudden, rapid blasts began propelling huge clumps of concrete through the air. Fear gripped him because his family were still inside along with hundreds of others.
They escaped with only a fright. Others were not so lucky.
“I saw a lot charred bodies and dead. It’s a nightmare that in time you forget,” said Monroy. “The children were crying, shouting, asking for help.”