At least 29 people were killed and dozens more injured Tuesday when a thunderous series of explosions tore through an open-air fireworks market outside Mexico City.
The initial blast occurred at 2:30 p.m. Video footage showed what looked like an aerial bombing attack on the sprawling market, as bright flashes punctuated the blue sky and fireballs burst into the air.
Beneath giant plumes of black smoke, the market stalls lay in splinters.
The death toll rose through the afternoon. By dark, Eruviel Avila, the governor of the state of Mexico, told local news crews that it stood at 29.
The injured included three children who suffered burns over 70% of their bodies, he said.
“My condolences to the families who lost lives in the accident and my desires for a quick recovery for the wounded,” President Enrique Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter.
Fireworks are a common part of Mexican Christmas celebrations, used by families everywhere from the countryside to the heart of the capital. The open-air San Pablito Market in Tultepec, about 25 miles north of Mexico City, was the best-known place to buy them.
With more than 300 retailers, it was also the country’s largest, by some estimates selling 80% of the fireworks nationwide. The local government estimated this year that between August and Christmas — the high season for fireworks — Mexicans would buy 100 tons of them.
In 2005, a fire engulfed the same market, touching off a chain of explosions that leveled hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico’s Independence Day. A similar fire at the market destroyed hundreds of stands in September 2006.
After those disasters, various safety measures were put in place, according to the Univision network. The market was licensed by the Secretariat of National Defense.
Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero, the director of the Mexican Pyrotechnics Institute, called San Pablito “the safest pyrotechnics market in all of Latin America,” according to an August press release from the Tultepec government.
He said the stalls were “designed perfectly and with sufficient space” so that a single spark wouldn’t ignite a chain of fires.
In a press release last week, the market’s president, German Galicia Cortes, assured visitors that the market was secure, complete with “fire extinguishers, hoses, sand, shovels and trained personnel who know how to act in case of any incident.”
Reports indicated that the market was filled with shoppers as the catastrophe struck.
Crescencia Francisco Garcia told the Associated Press that she was standing in the middle of the stalls when the explosions began around 2:30 p.m.
“All of a sudden it started booming,” she said. “I and the others surrounding me all took off running.”
The rapid-fire explosions and bursts of flame continued as people fled, fearing for their lives.
The Mexican Red Cross reported that it had dispatched 10 ambulances with 50 paramedics to the scene. Rescue workers were shown on Mexican TV picking their way through a the ruins of twisted metal, warped roofs and other debris.
The scent of gunpowder lingered.
Luis Felipe Puente, National Civil Protection coordinator, said some nearby homes also were damaged. He advised that residents keep at least three miles away to stay out of the way of emergency responders.
Tultepec, a city of 50,000, is home to the National Pyrotechnic Festival, which takes place for a week each March and includes fireworks competitions and parades.
SOURCE: Patrick J. McDonnell, Nina Agrawal and Laura Tillman
The Los Angeles Times
Special correspondent Laura Tillman in Mexico City, staff writer Nina Agrawal in Los Angeles and the Associated Press contributed to this article.