VERACRUZ, Mexico – Sobbing friends and families spent New Year's Day rushing to hospitals and the city morgue in search of their missing loved ones a day after a deadly fireworks explosion killed at least 28 people. The blasts ignited a city block, sending hundreds fleeing for their lives as flames shot 130 feet into the air.
Authorities said 41 people were injured and 47 were still unaccounted for after a chain of fireworks explosions Tuesday evening blasted through a crowded central market. The explosions destroyed several businesses and dozens of market stands.
Though this port city is known for extravagant celebrations, many people here spent the day mourning the dead, many of whom were burned beyond recognition. Officials asked residents to provide dental records to help identify the bodies.
With tears welling up in his eyes, Manuel Echeverria, 68, recounted Wednesday how he and his 12-year-old grandson ran with hundreds of others to escape flying debris and a raging inferno that sent flames 130 feet into the air.
"It was thundering and the ground was shaking underneath us," he said. "We were all running, crying and yelling. It was horrible."
Echeverria stood behind police tape cordoning off the city block that was consumed by the explosions and resulting fire. Streets were littered with the remnants of destroyed wooden fruit stands, the blackened hulks of burned-out cars and ash-covered grapes. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, Mexicans traditionally eat a grape for each month of the year for good luck.
Victims were burned alive in the streets and in shops where some had tried to escape the explosions. Authorities said that they found the bodies of 13 people at a clothing store, including five in a back closet.
Inside the blackened store, the metal blades of ceiling fans drooped like rabbit ears, melted by the fire's intense heat.
Officials said the explosions were caused by a spark that set off boxes of fireworks being sold illegally at the Hidalgo market, a major shopping area in this Gulf port 185 miles east of Mexico City.
It was not the first, or the most deadly, fireworks explosion in Mexico in recent years. In 1999, 4 tons of illegally stored fireworks and gunpowder exploded in the central state of Guanajuato, killing 63 people.
In 1988, at least 68 people were killed in a fireworks explosion in Mexico City's sprawling La Merced central market.
Mexicans use fireworks to celebrate everything from weddings to national holidays, and a nationwide crackdown on the sale of illegal explosives has made little headway.
Police raided the illegal fireworks stands at the Hidalgo market on Dec. 24, but residents beat them back with rocks, bottles, and sticks.
On Wednesday, soldiers guarded warehouses holding 4 tons of illegal fireworks that authorities had seized the day before. Police Commander Jaime Tellez said that four people had been detained for possession of illegal fireworks and that 30 additional police patrols were assigned to search for illegal explosives throughout the city.
"This is not like going after a criminal. We are up against civil society and we need people's help to combat this," Tellez said.
Veracruz draws visitors from across Mexico for its extravagant tropical-style celebrations that include giant papier-mach'e dolls and dancing clowns on stilts. Its most popular attraction is the annual Carnival celebration in February.
But on Wednesday, this steamy city of a half million people canceled a pre-dawn New Year's Day parade that traditionally includes fireworks displays.
Anxious residents huddled outside the explosion site and made their way to a palm-lined plaza where officials had posted a list of victims' names.
Rosa Hernandez, 39, stumbled up to the blasted-out city block and began sobbing when she was told that her best friend and son's godmother, Lupita, had died.
"Why did this happen to her? Why? I loved my Lupita," she said.
Hernandez said that for more than 17 years she had worked alongside Lupita in the market selling prickly pear cactus pads, a popular dish in Mexico.
Echeverria and his family, who planned to shoot off fireworks to celebrate the New Year, instead spent their holiday destroying the explosives.
"I'm never going to buy them again," he said.