A makeshift stadium burdened with as many as 3,000 spectators and revelers collapsed “like a row of dominoes” in the middle of a bullfight Sunday afternoon, leaving an estimated 80 to 120 Mexicans and Americans injured, but apparently none dead.
The mishap, coming at the end of this small border town’s two-day festival and annual “running of the bulls,” occurred at about 5:30 p.m. just as matadora Raquel Martinez of San Diego and the bull she was to fight had entered the ring.
“All of a sudden I heard the rumble and I knew what it meant,” Martinez said Sunday night in a telephone interview from a motel room in Tecate, where she was still trying to locate friends and relatives. “This is the third ring I’ve been in that has fallen.”
The arena, which consisted of a circle of portable wood and metal bleachers surrounded by a permanent wall, began without warning to shift sideways on its eastern side, witnesses said. Within seconds, the entire ring had collapsed flat--like a row of dominoes, as spectators repeatedly said.
People on the upper and lower levels of the approximately seven-row structure managed to jump free of the wreckage, observers said. But some of those sitting in the middle became tangled in the wooden slats, and witnesses said many suffered broken arms and legs, cuts and bruises.
“The first thing I saw was Raquel running toward us and calling for her son,” recalled Bill Howell, a San Diego police officer who had accompanied Martinez’s husband, San Diego police spokesman Bill Robinson, to the fight. “And right behind her was the bull getting ready to charge. I yelled, ‘I’ll find him, I’ll find him.’ And she went back to dealing with the bull.”
Medics, police officers and citizens tended to the injured--estimated at as many as 120 by Tecate Fire Chief Luis Villavicencio. He said 15 to 20 were seriously hurt and taken to the General Hospital of Tijuana. Another 100 were treated at the Red Cross clinic and Centro Medico in Tecate, he said.
Bobbie Wheat, another police officer who had accompanied Robinson, said she shredded her shirt to make bandages for people who had been cut, loaded the injured on stretchers fashioned from boards from the bleachers and helped make wooden splints for people with broken bones.
“They used private cars, ambulances, trucks, any vehicle that would drive” to take people to hospitals, said Wheat. “There was one guy we had to do CPR on. He kind of went into cardiac arrest.”
Older people who were unable to move quickly seemed to have suffered the worst, Wheat said. Back injuries and head cuts seemed the most common injuries. But by late Sunday there were no reports of deaths.
Earlier Sunday, witnesses said several men, who they said appeared to be drunk, had been tossed and gored by bulls during the “running of the bulls,” the annual ceremony in which up to a half dozen bulls run down the main street of Tecate in a narrow alley framed by a high steel fence.
And during bullfights Saturday, Robinson said, a fight broke out in the stands, police fired shots into the air, and as many as a dozen people were arrested.
Before Martinez’ scheduled fight Sunday afternoon, matador Rogelio LeDuc was trampled but managed to get up, finish the fight and kill the bull.
Martinez, who was born in Tijuana and now divides her time between San Diego and Mexico City, was entering the ring for the first of her two bulls when she and others said the bleachers began creaking and slipping sideways.
“I felt it moving and I looked down at my feet and the board my feet were on was moving to the left,” Howell said. “I just yelled, ‘The stands are going down!’ The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I don’t remember any sound at all.”
“It’s kind of funny,” he added. “The wall that surrounded the bull ring wasn’t very high. But all of a sudden, it was the highest thing around.”
Almost immediately, people began walking out of the ring in a surprisingly orderly fashion, stepping over the flattened seats, Howell said. Then police and medics began helping the injured out, and ambulances and cars began lining up. Within 30 minutes, Howell said, the arena was emptied.
Villavicencio said there were injuries only because people panicked.
However, witnesses said the spectators appeared calm under the circumstances. They said some appeared to have been partially crushed in the collapse. Others suffered back injuries when they suddenly dropped 10 to 20 feet.
Spectators said the bull that was in the ring at the time of the collapse was later killed by matadors.
The arena, called Miguel Calete stadium and located on a main thoroughfare in this community of 60,000, is used for bullfights and rodeos, Mexican authorities said. But as late as Saturday workers were seen spot welding and painting in preparation for the weekend fights.
Mexican officials threatened in May to close down a much larger, permanent bull ring in downtown Tijuana due to fears for its safety. However, it is still in regular use. Martinez said she had been in two temporary rings when they collapsed near Mexico City.
In Tecate, about 20 people suffered minor injuries two years ago when they were struck during the running of the bulls. The same year, officials said, dozens of participants managed to isolate several bulls, then kicked and punched them and threw bottles at them. In 1979 a man was trampled to death during the running of the bulls.
The so-called Pamplonada is patterned after a 400-year-old annual event in Pamplona, Spain. Armando Carrasco, a tourism official in Baja California, said yesterday before the mishap, “There it has meaning. Here it’s just a party. A wild party.”
San Diego county hospitals reported by 9 p.m. Sunday that 16 Mexicans and Americans had arrived by car or ambulance, primarily with neck, back, leg injuries and broken bones. Helicopters manned with doctors and nurses, and eight ambulances were sent from San Diego County to Tecate. It was unclear Sunday night how might have been used.
Miguel Cervantes and Times staff writer Kathleen H. Cooley contributed to this story.