The “no smoking” signs are still plain to see all around the fireworks market at San Pablito Tultepec, an area the size of two soccer pitches in this village in the state of Mexico.
Inside what is left of the market, the scene is apocalyptic. Metal beams are charred and twisted into impossible shapes, cement walls have melted, and cranes are picking up rubble that looks more like coal.
On Tuesday afternoon, four days before Christmas, 300 tons of explosives went off for unknown reasons, in a deadly accident.
Pyrotechnics are an industry and a tradition here in Tultepec
Diana Angélica and her family had just arrived when the explosions began.
“We heard the first fireworks go off and we started running down the aisle. There were a lot of people. I grabbed my 11-month-old girl and then boom, we felt a really strong explosion behind us, like a gas pipe,” she recalls.
The blast lifted them off the ground and into the fence. “We fell among a bunch of people, but we managed to get out.”
It was around 3pm. The chain reaction of exploding fireworks lasted for over an hour, sending plumes of white smoke in the air.
Four Army helicopters and a detachment of state and federal police participated in the rescue operation. Improvised tents were pitched to provide shelter for friends and relatives of the victims. Authorities are asking family members for blood samples to help identify the bodies, some of which are charred beyond recognition.
Diana Angélica’s husband and older son are among the missing.
The San Pablito fireworks market is one of Mexico’s biggest. This is not the first time that accidents occur here: in 2005 and 2006, blasts left dozens injured. This year, three people died and 13 sustained injuries after fireworks went off.
But the Mexico Pyrotechnics Institute defends the safety of the premises.
“The stalls are perfectly designed, with enough space to avoid a chain explosion in the event that a spark goes off.”
“It was very complicated bringing the fire under control,” explains Martín Patiño, a firefighter. “The worst part was the shock wave, the chain reaction of so much gunpowder and aluminum. Until it gets consumed, there is nothing you can do.”
Pyrotechnics is an industry and a tradition here in Tultepec, which has a population of 40,000. Juan Carlos Amado represents the third generation of fireworks sellers in his family.
On Tuesday, he did not go to work, but sent his 15-year-old son Saúl instead. Saúl started manning the family stall at 8am, and was supposed to be back at 8pm. He never returned.
English version by Susana Urra.