Mexico fireworks market explosion leaves 35 dead

Updated 8:45 PM EST, Thu December 22, 2016
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Story highlights

NEW: Fireworks vendor says it felt like there was another blast every 3 seconds

At least 35 people were killed in fireworks explosions north of Mexico City

(CNN) —  

This market has become a graveyard.

For years, families have wandered through rows of stalls at San Pablito, searching for fireworks to launch during holiday season celebrations.

Now, forensic teams are combing through the charred rubble, searching for victims’ remains.

At least 35 people were killed and dozens more were injured in a massive series of explosions Tuesday at this market north of Mexico City, officials said.

The powerful, deadly blasts sent huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and shook the ground in neighboring towns.

The bodies of 28 people who died have been identified and returned to their relatives. Authorities say it could be another few days before they can determine the identities of the other victims.

The governor of the state of Mexico, Eruviel Ávila Villegas, instructed his administration to assist in the costs of funerals.

A town transformed

The smell of fireworks, charred wood and burned plastic still filled the air a day after the explosions.

As investigators searched the site, bodies lay side by side on the ground, covered in dust and ash.

Miguel Urban Bojas, 49, a fireworks vendor who was injured along with his 83-year-old mother, said from his hospital bed that he was working at the time of the blast and it felt like there was another explosion every three seconds. They ran but she fell.

“I came back and I helped her. We were halfway the distance we had to cover to get out when I got hit by a large piece of brick and broke my hand and my hand was like hanging.”

His mother fell again. Another piece of brick hit Urban and he also fell.

“I thought she was dead but no, thank God, no she wasn’t. At that moment one of my nephews came in with other people and they carried us out, risking their lives because shrapnel was flying all over the place.”

His mother was recuperating in a nearby hospital room. They’ll probably return to the fireworks business.

“Yes, we’re going to keep on working. It’s our livelihood,” he said.

The San Pablito market is in Tultepec, a city about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Mexico City that bills itself as the country’s fireworks capital.

An explosion at the same fireworks market in 2005 injured a large number of people and caused extensive damage. Another fire tore through part of the market in 2006. Since then, officials have touted security improvements at the site and described it as a much safer place to buy and sell pyrotechnics than the clandestine workshops in some local homes.

A video posted on YouTube shows what the San Pablito market in Tultepec looked like in 2015.
jossjam/YouTube
A video posted on YouTube shows what the San Pablito market in Tultepec looked like in 2015.

After the 2005 blast, officials separated market stalls in an effort to prevent fires from spreading. Local government officials last week described it as “the safest market in Latin America.” In a statement, Mexican Pyrotechnics Institute Director Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero said the market had “perfectly designed stalls with enough space so that there is no chain reaction fire in case of a spark.”

Authorities haven’t said what caused Tuesday’s explosions. Out of the market’s roughly 300 stalls, about 10 are still standing.

An image captured by a drone shows smoke billowing from the market after a series of blasts Tuesday.
Pro Tultepec/APTN/AP
An image captured by a drone shows smoke billowing from the market after a series of blasts Tuesday.

Frantic search

Video of Tuesday’s blasts showed flashes of fire and what appeared to be fireworks exploding.

The area is densely populated, and witnesses from surrounding neighborhoods captured images of the huge volume of smoke that billowed into the sky.

The explosions have left people shaken in Tultepec, where the economy depends heavily on the fireworks industry. There’s a 200-year tradition of manufacturing pyrotechnics in the city, which hosts a huge fireworks festival every year that’s drawn international attention.

Crowds jump around as rockets rain down at the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec in March.
Rick Majewski/ZUMA/Alamy
Crowds jump around as rockets rain down at the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec in March.

After Tuesday’s explosions, frantic family members searched for missing loved ones.

The focus remains on “saving the lives of the injured,” a press statement released by the Mexican government said Thursday.

Sixty people were injured in the blasts, officials said Wednesday, and dozens remain hospitalized.

One of two teens severely burned in the incident was airlifted for treatment at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas.

“The patient has arrived here and is being treated and is doing well,” Dr. David Herndon, hospital chief of staff, said in a news conference.

A decision on whether to airlift the other is pending, authorities said.

One man told CNN en Español he was visiting his children when they all went to the market to buy fireworks.

His kids went one way; he and his granddaughter took another route. When he heard the explosion, he ran looking for his loved ones. He found them all, except for one, the baby. Soon, panic set in.

“We have called the ambulance, the Red Cross and no one has any information,” he said as he wept. “No one knows anything.”

CNN’s Sara Sidner reported from Tultepec. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet wrote the story in Atlanta. CNN’s Fidel Gutierrez, Leyla Santiago, Elwyn Lopez, Darran Simon, Juliet Perry, Nelson Quiñones, Max Blau, Azadeh Ansari, Michael Roa, Natalie Gallón, Sara Weisfeldt and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.