An explosion has ripped through Mexico’s best-known fireworks market on the northern outskirts of the capital, reportedly killing at least 29 people and injuring 70.
The explosion, which was caught on camera, sent a huge plume of charcoal-gray smoke billowing into the sky. Images broadcast by Milenio TV showed smoke rising from the scorched ground and fireworks stands.
“People were crying everywhere and desperately running in all directions,” said 20-year-old witness Cesar Carmona.
Crescencia Francisco Garcia said she was in the middle of the grid of stalls along with a few hundred others when the thunderous explosions began.
As she ran away 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.”
Some 13 children suffered burns to over 90% of their bodies and were being sent to the US city of Galveston in Texas for treatment, said Eruviel Avila, the governor of the State of Mexico where Tultepec is located. He put the death toll at 29.
Avila also vowed to find and punish those responsible for the blast and provide economic assistance to those who had lost their livelihoods.
The blast flattened the San Pablito market in the municipality of Tultepec, where many people make a living from manufacturing fireworks – often in clandestine workshops.
The Christmas season brings in brisk business, according to merchants at the market, as Mexicans stock up on pyrotechnics.
Over 80% of the 300 stalls at the market were destroyed by the explosion, said state official Jose Manzur. Local media reported there were 300 tonnes of fireworks on site at the time of the explosion.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation. Officials in Mexico state, which surrounds Mexico City like a horseshoe and includes Tultepec, said they were focusing their attention on the injured.
The director of the state government’s pyrotechnics institute, which regulates the fireworks industry, had called the San Pablito Artisanal Pyrotechnics Market one of the safest market in all of Latin America “with stalls perfectly designed and with sufficient space so that there is not a chain reaction in case of a spark,” news website Animal Politico reported.
Disasters are not uncommon in places such as Tultepec, where authorities have tried for decades to control a fireworks industry famed throughout Mexico for producing everything from firecrackers and sparklers to towering structures called “castillos,” which spin and explode and are installed at small town festivals.
Fireworks are commonly sold over the Christmas holidays, but also prove popular additions to patron saint festivities, when celebrants set off rockets in the predawn hours.
The San Pablito market had suffered explosions previously.
The market ignited on the eve of Independence celebrations in September 2005, injuring 128 vendors and customers, according to press reports. Officials at the time blamed customers being given improper permission to ignite explosive items, which set off a chain of explosions.
The market reopened the following year, but with special safety precautions including provisions that all structures must be built of brick and concrete and fireworks on-sale had to be kept beneath glass and not touched by customers. Firefighters were also stationed onsite.
The defence secretariat – which sells gunpowder for use in fireworks – also imposed new regulations, including limiting fireworks purchase to 10kg per person.