Police in the port city of Veracruz detained three people and seized 5 tons of fireworks Wednesday, vowing a crackdown on illegal pyrotechnics after a New Year's Eve blaze at an outdoor market killed at least 28 vendors and shoppers.
The swift search for culprits in the latest in a terrible history of deadly fireworks accidents in Mexico signaled fresh determination among authorities to enforce widely ignored safety regulations. Holiday conflagrations are a frequent occurrence because rural residents as well as those from crowded urban areas like to celebrate religious and public occasions with sparklers, cherry bombs and bottle rockets.
Fire broke out shortly before nightfall Tuesday in an outdoor booth selling fireworks to holiday revelers. The blaze quickly engulfed neighboring stands in the warren of crude shops that make up the Hidalgo market, then spread to adjacent buildings in an inferno ascending several stories high.
Television footage showed chaotic scenes of firefighters spraying flames in buildings where trapped residents awaited rescue amid clouds of smoke and exploding ordnance. Several cars were consumed in the blaze, as were most of the shops in buildings fronting the market.
Crews spent six hours battling the fire, with pyrotechnics exploding and spreading the flames as they engulfed one wooden stand after another.
Rescue workers resumed the search for bodies at dawn on New Year's Day after having suspended operations overnight because of the intense heat and danger from falling debris. Authorities said the death toll could climb, because more than 40 people thought to have been in the area remained unaccounted for nearly 24 hours after the fire started.
About a dozen of the dead were thought to have been trapped immediately by the swiftly spreading flames and explosions, and firefighters found the charred remains of 16 women who had huddled in a nearby clothing store where they apparently sought refuge.
Of the 28 bodies recovered, only a handful had been identified by the afternoon, said police, who asked relatives to bring dental records to aid in the process. Some of the vendors were believed to be itinerants, which police said could delay a full accounting of the casualties.
At least 35 other people suffered injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation. They were treated in Veracruz hospitals, with at least two dozen held overnight.
Three unidentified people were arrested early Wednesday on suspicion of illegal storage of explosive materials, the Televisa network reported, citing local police sources. Emergency service personnel from the army were also aiding local police in a search for further stores of contraband fireworks. Televisa said 5 tons had been seized in the citywide raid.
Police were still investigating the cause of the blaze. There were conflicting reports, according to police, of a passerby tossing a lighted cigarette into one fireworks stall and of an electrical spark igniting the fire.
Mexican law imposes controls and safety standards for the manufacture and sale of fireworks, but they are routinely ignored by vendors and seldom enforced by police.
"This is not the first time this has happened in Mexico or in Veracruz," Veracruz Mayor Jose Ramon Gutierrez told reporters. "We are all responsible. Let this serve as an example."
A fire ignited by illegal fireworks killed 63 people in the central town of Celaya in 1999, and 68 people died in a 1988 fireworks explosion in Mexico City's busy La Merced market.
Veracruz Fire Department officials had tried to shut down the fireworks market on Christmas Eve on the grounds of safety violations.
But vendors revolted, pelting officers with sticks and rocks to drive them away, city spokesman Carlos Ortiz said.