DISASTERS

Death toll at Mexican fireworks market at 33, with 12 still missing

Mexican authorities say the death toll of the San Pablito fireworks market explosion could rise further because 12 people are still missing and body parts were found at the scene of Tuesday's tragedy in Tultepec.

Late Wednesday, officials updated the list of dead to 33, a figure also announced by state Interior Secretary Jose Manzur in a local radio interview.

About 46 people remained hospitalized. Ten of the injured were minors, including one girl with burns over 90 percent of her body.

Juana Antolina Hernandez, who has run a stand for 22 years in San Pablito next to one operated by her parents, escaped the market in a mad dash when the explosions began Tuesday afternoon. The following day she was one of the disconsolate residents waiting outside a local morgue.

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"I can't find my father, and my mother is very badly burned," said Hernandez, 49. "I am waiting here for them to tell me if my father is here, but up to this point, nothing."

San Pablito was especially well stocked for the holidays and bustling with hundreds of shoppers when the blast reduced the market to a stark expanse of ash, rubble and the scorched metal, casting a pall over the Christmas season. Dramatic video of the explosion showed a towering plume of smoke that was lit up by a staccato of bangs and flashes of light, the third such incident to ravage the market on the northern outskirts of Mexico's capital since 2005.

Refugio Leon, whose family ran seven stalls in the market, said vendors commonly stacked displays of bottle rockets and firecrackers outside their establishments in the passageways — even though the rules supposedly forbade putting merchandise in what were supposed to be safety buffers.

"Everybody did it," Leon said, speculating that it may have played a role in the rapid spread of the explosions.

Video and photos of the stalls from previous years showed concrete-block enclosures with open dirt passageways between them; later photos showed the passageways filling up with fireworks and awnings.

On Dec. 12, the city of Tultepec issued a statement calling San Pablito "the safest market in Latin America." It said 100 tons of fireworks were expected to be sold during the high season, which runs from August to New Year's.

The city quoted Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero, the director of the state's Fireworks Institute, as saying "the stalls are perfectly designed and with sufficient space between them to avoid any chain of fires." City officials said the stalls were equipped with trained personnel, sand, shovels and fire extinguishers.

But during a recent visit to the market, little of that safety equipment could be seen. And when Tuesday's explosion began, vendors and customers didn't have time to look for it — or even, in many cases, to run.

Deadly fireworks explosions have also occurred elsewhere in Mexico: In 2002, a blast at a market in the Gulf coast city of Veracruz killed 29; in 1999, 63 people died when an explosion of illegally stored fireworks destroyed part of the city of Celaya; and in 1988, a fireworks blast in Mexico City's La Merced market killed at least 68; and in 2013 a rocket struck a truck loaded with fireworks for a religious procession in Tlaxcala state, killing 17 people.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.