DISASTERS

Mexico's fireworks market resembles a war zone after massive, unexplained blast

A faint smell of gunpowder was still noticeable Wednesday morning in the vicinity of the San Pablito market in this city just north of Mexico’s capital.

After Tuesday evening’s massive explosion destroyed 80 percent of the country largest fireworks market, the area now more closely resembles a war zone. The stalls have been reduced to charred, twisted heaps of metal. Burnt carcasses of cars riddle the parking lots on the outskirts of the market.

“It felt like we were being bombarded. The explosions just kept going, I think they lasted for at least five minutes,” said Óscar Chávez, a 35-year-old taxi driver who was parked a few block away from the market when the explosions started. “I honestly thought for a moment that I was done for, it seemed like the explosion was going to reach us too,” he told FoxNews.com

Located in Estado de México, the state that curls around Mexico City like a horseshoe, Tultepec is reeling from what has been the greatest fireworks disaster in Mexico in recent memory. As of noon, at least 31 people had died, about 60 were wounded and 12 people were still missing.

Only 13 casualties have been identified.

“We have no idea where the victims are. The government’s response is inadequate, we need more information,” said Concepción Hernández Baez as she looked for her missing mother.

What exactly caused the explosion is still unclear; the authorities have not yet released any information as to what they believe may have happened. Soldiers and police officers sealed off the immediate surroundings of the disaster zone, only allowing family members of the victims to enter the area. On Wednesday morning investigators in white suits were scouring the ruins for clues of what may have caused the explosion.

Tultepec is no stranger to fireworks disasters. According to Milenio Noticias, a Mexico City television network, at least 68 people have died in more than 10 separate accidents over the past few decades. Those include two major explosions at the San Pablito market itself, in 2005 and 2006, in which most of the market was destroyed.

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Each time, however, the market was re-established shortly afterwards. Tultepec is known as the ‘fireworks capital’ of Mexico, where the production of explosive materials is an important part of the local economy. Fireworks are widely used in Mexico, both in national holidays and Catholic patron saint celebrations. The San Pablito market had expected to sell 100 metric tons of fireworks this season.

Tultepec residents told FoxNews.com entire streets of the city hide a thriving underground fireworks business.

“It’s scary to think of what could happen if a spark goes off in one of those places. I know many of those underground factories, they’re very dangerous,” Óscar Sánchez, the taxi driver, said.

Ironically, the San Pablito market was called the ‘safest of its kind in Latin America’ by the state regulatory fireworks agency. The stalls were separated by several yards and all apparently had a barrel of water standing next to them to extinguish sudden fires.

“If the 300 stalls selling fireworks that make up the San Pablito Market had all the corresponding permits and appropriate safety measures, the authorities will have to verify whether there was corruption or negligence,” Mexico City newspaper El Universal wrote in a commentary this morning. “Or are the current regulations insufficient?”

“What happened in Tultepec begs the question whether the traditions and the freedom to use explosives are enough reason to continue to permit the indiscriminate use of fireworks”, the newspaper added. 

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen