Relatives of workers at a fireworks market flattened by a deadly chain-reaction explosion searched hospitals for loved ones Wednesday as attention focused on apparent lax security that allowed vendors to display their dangerous wares in the passageways between stalls.
Health Secretary César Gómez Monge of Mexico State, where the San Pablito Market is located, said another victim died in a hospital, raising the fatal toll to 32. About 46 people remained hospitalized, five of them in such serious condition that they were fighting for their lives, he added. Ten of the injured were minors including one girl with burns over 90 percent of her body.
Juana Antolina Hernández, 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.
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 León, who spent years working at the market and whose family ran seven stalls there, 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 was supposed to be a safety buffer to prevent chain-reaction explosions.
“Everybody did it,” León 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.
Officials in Mexico State, which borders Mexico City, said it was too early to identify a cause of the massive series of blasts.
On Dec. 12 the city of Tultepec, where the market is located, 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.
The president of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), Alejandra Barrales, noted that fireworks accidents take place regularly including four this year alone.
“This demonstrates the lack of care and attention not just here but in the whole state,” Barrales said in a statement.
Mexico State chief prosecutor Alejandro Gómez said some of the dead were so badly burned that neither their age nor their gender could be immediately determined, and that DNA tests would be needed. He said the toll could rise because 12 people were listed as missing and some body parts were found at the scene.
Mexico State Interior Secretary José Manzur said 30,000 people make a living from fireworks in Tultepec and the trade had been going on there for two centuries.