A series of explosions ripped through the San Pablito pyrotechnic market north of Mexico City on Tuesday afternoon, engulfing Mexico’s largest fireworks market and sending a plume of smoke toward the capital.
Among the 14 men killed, seven were minors, and a child was among the 16 women killed. One body remains unidentified.
The market, located in the municipality of Tultepec — which has been called Mexico’s pyrotechnic capital — was the country’s most well-known fireworks hub and regarded by officials as the safest such market in Latin America.
But it’s not the first time devastating incidents like the one on Tuesday afternoon, the cause of which is still unknown, have happened in San Pablito.
Over the last 20 years, there have been at least eight other blasts at the market — in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2012.
A blast in 1997 left three people dead, according to BBC Mundo, while a 1998 explosion in a gunpowder deposit killed a dozen people, left 50 injured, and caused extensive damage. One death occurred in a similar incident in 1999.
An explosion in September 2005, on the eve of Mexican independence celebrations, injured 128 vendors and customers, according to The Guardian.
At the time, officials blamed customers given improper permission to ignite explosives, setting off a series of explosions. The market reopened the next year, but regulations were put in place requiring stalls be built of brick and concrete and that fireworks had to be kept under glass and not touched by shoppers.
Blasts in 2006 and 2007 destroyed the whole market, but in the wake of those explosions other safety measures were implemented to prevent chain explosions.
In addition to those blasts, the last two decades have seen several fireworks blasts in other parts of the country claim scores of lives. Also on Tuesday, one person was killed in an explosion at a fireworks factory in the state of Hidalgo.
Fireworks frequently accompany celebrations in Mexico, particularly at independence day and holiday festivities. On Tuesday the San Pablito market was well stocked and packed with hundreds of customers and vendors.
“We are obviously in the high season,” Tultepec Mayor Armando Portuguez Fuentes told the Associated Press. “There was more product than usual because we are a few days away from Christmas, a few days away from New Year’s, and those are the days when the products made here are consumed the most.”
At least six explosions ripped through the market, starting a little before 3 p.m. and going on for at least 25 minutes, according to MSNBC. Local media reported that there were 300 metric tons of fireworks on the scene at the time, and more than 80% of the 300 stalls at the site are believed destroyed.
“People were crying everywhere and desperately running in all directions,” 20-year-old witness César Carmona said.
“The earth moved,” Angelica Coss, a 25-year-old resident who lives just streets away from the market, told AFP. “It felt like a plane had crashed, like bombs were being dropped.”
“Everything was catching fire. Everything was exploding,” Crescencia Francisco Garcia, who was in the middle of a section of stalls when the blasts began, told the AP. As she ran out of the market, she saw people with burns and cuts and lots of blood. “The stones were flying, pieces of brick, everything was flying.”
“You just heard the blast. And everything started to be on fire. People came running out on fire,” Walter Garduno told AFP. “People were alight — children,” he added before trailing off.
Efforts by first responders were initially stymied by ongoing blasts. The Red Cross deployed 10 ambulances and 50 paramedics to the scene, where they were joined by police, firefighters, and health officials from nearby localities.
The Mexican military aided emergency crews by transporting the injured via helicopter and ambulance.
According to Mexican news site Animal Politico, on December 12, Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero, director general of the Mexican Pyrotechnic Institute, said that the San Pablito market was the safest fireworks market in Latin America — “with perfectly designed stalls and with sufficient spaces so that there will not be a chain conflagration in case of a spark.”
Government sources confirmed to Animal Politico that the federal attorney general’s office will assume the investigation of the incident because, as explosive materials were involved, federal crimes could have been committed.
“We are going to identify who is responsible,” vowed Mexico state Gov. Eruviel Avila.
The fireworks industry is a mainstay in Tultepec, and despite regulations — like firefighters on site at the market and Defense Ministry regulation of gunpowder sales and licenses — many people produce fireworks in clandestine workshops or store them illegally.
“This is part of the activity of our town. It is what gives us identity,” Portuguez, the Tultepec mayor, told the AP. “We know it is high-risk, we regret this greatly, but unfortunately many people’s livelihoods depend on this activity.”