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At least 29 killed and dozens injured as explosions rip through fireworks market outside Mexico City

A thunderous series of explosions tore through an open-air fireworks market outside Mexico City on Tuesday, leaving at least 29 dead and 72 injured, many seriously, authorities said.

The initial blast occurred at 2:30 p.m., when the market was filled with shoppers looking for fireworks for the holiday season.

Video showed what looked like an aerial bombing attack on the sprawling market, as bright flashes punctuated the blue sky and fireballs burst into the air.

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The repeated blasts sounded like an artillery barrage.

“We thought we were going to die,” said Javier Aylar Valdez, 48, who was shopping for fireworks when the detonations began.

He initially hid in a stall, he said, and then jumped a fence in front of the rushing flames and ran for his life.

“Within five minutes everything was burning and we started to run,” he recalled.

Beneath giant plumes of black smoke, the market stalls lay in splinters. Firefighters doused the remaining flames, baring an apocalyptic expanse of twisted debris.

The death toll rose through the afternoon. By dark, Eruviel Avila, the governor of the state of Mexico, told local news crews that it stood at 29, with an additional 72 people injured. The casualty figures were expected to rise.

The injured included three children who suffered burns over 70% of their bodies, he said.

“My condolences to the families who lost lives in the accident and my desires for a quick recovery for the wounded,” President Enrique Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter.

It was the latest and among the most fatal in a series of fireworks accidents dating back years in Mexico, where fireworks are an essential part of holiday celebrations.

By nightfall, police had cordoned off the area surrounding the market. Arriving near the scene were both the curious and people looking for friends or loved ones who may have been in the market at the time of the incident.

Verenice Garcia Rodriguez and her husband were hoping for any word of a friend, David Espinoza, who works at a stand inside the market.

“We were waiting to see if anyone else comes out,” said Garcia.

Many were stunned at the scope of the disaster.

“I thought the market was safe,” said Arianna Valdovinos, 34, who lives less than a mile from the site. The explosion rattled the windows of her home, she said.

Among those gathered in the chilly evening, there was widespread disbelief about the breadth of the tragedy in a market that was a signature part of the town, a place many had visited — and where hundreds of others made a living.

“We are so sorry about what happened, this was their business, the pyrotechnics,” said Gerardo Macias, 49, who came with his daughter, Seannie Sandoval, 13.

The daughter said she had never seen such destruction. “I feel so bad for these people,” she said.

Fireworks are a common part of Mexican Christmas celebrations, used by families everywhere from the countryside to the heart of the capital. The San Pablito Market in Tultepec, about 25 miles north of Mexico City, was the best-known place to buy them.

With more than 300 retailers, it was also the country’s largest, by some estimates selling 80% of the fireworks nationwide. The local government estimated this year that between August and Christmas — the high season for fireworks — Mexicans would buy 100 tons of them.

In 2005, a fire engulfed the same market, touching off a chain of explosions that leveled hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico’s Independence Day. A similar fire at the market destroyed hundreds of stands in September 2006.

After those disasters, various safety measures were put in place, said authorities, who have hailed the market as safe, according to the Univision network. The market was licensed by the Secretariat of National Defense.

Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero, the director of the Mexican Pyrotechnics Institute, called San Pablito “the safest pyrotechnics market in all of Latin America,” according to an August press release from the government of Tultepec, a city of 50,000 in the state of Mexico.

The stalls, he boasted at the time, were “designed perfectly and with sufficient space” so that a single spark wouldn’t ignite a chain of fires.

In a press release last week, the market’s president, German Galicia Cortes, assured visitors that the market was secure, complete with “fire extinguishers, water, sand, picks, shovels and trained personnel who know how to act in case of any incident.”

The Mexican attorney general’s office, which is investigating the incident, said in a statement that six explosions shook the market. What set them off remained unclear. But the tragedy seemed certain to raise calls for enhanced safety at San Pablito and other fireworks markets and manufacturing sites.

Firefighters and rescue workers walk through the scorched grounds of Mexico's best-known fireworks market after an explosion Tuesday.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

The Mexican Red Cross reported that it had dispatched 10 ambulances with 50 paramedics to the scene. Rescue workers were shown on Mexican TV picking their way through the ruins of twisted metal, warped roofs and other debris.

Ambulance crews rushed the wounded on stretchers to a nearby field, where helicopters were waiting to ferry them off for treatment.

The scent of gunpowder lingered at the shattered scene, where scores of stalls had been flattened and turned into wreckage.

At the Lomas Verdes hospital, north of Mexico City, the waiting room was filled with anxious people hoping for word of relatives and friends.

“We don’t know anything about my brother,” said Gloria Arenas, 37, who was looking for Mario Arenas, a fireworks salesman at the market.

“My parents went to other hospitals to look for him and I came here, but they don’t tell us anything. They don’t give us any information. I’m desperate. We don’t know anything about his fate.”

Laura Torres, 40, came to look for her father, Gerardo Torres, 64, also a fireworks vendor at the market. She couldn’t hold back tears as she spoke.

“I’m very worried, the market doesn’t exist anymore, it was destroyed,” said Laura Torres. “And my father was right there inside and we don’t know anything about what happened to him. All of my family is looking for him.… I pray to God that he is alive.”

Special correspondent Tillman reported from Tultepec, Mexico, and Times staff writers McDonnell and Agrawal reported from Mexico City and Los Angeles, respectively. Special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

6:25 p.m.: The article was updated with additional background on the fireworks market.

5:45 p.m.: The article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll, 26.

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with news that nine people had died and 70 had been injured, up from 60 in earlier reports.

3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a witness account.

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more information on injuries.

This article was originally published at 2:15 p.m.


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