Fireworks explosions kill 24 in central Mexico

By AFP   July 5, 2018 | 07:11 pm PT
Fireworks explosions kill 24 in central Mexico
Picture taken at the site after a series of explosions at fireworks warehouses in Tultepec, central Mexico, on July 5, 2018. Photo by AFP
Tultepec is known for its artisanal fireworks and a history of deadly accidents in Mexico.

At least 24 people were killed in a series of explosions Thursday at fireworks warehouses in the town of Tultepec in central Mexico, including rescue workers who died saving others' lives, officials said.

The initial explosion occurred around 9:30 a.m. (1430 GMT), then spread to other warehouses just as police and firefighters began attending to the first victims.

Tultepec, a town of 65,000 people just north of Mexico City, is known for its artisanal fireworks and a history of deadly accidents.

"We deeply regret the deaths of those who were killed this morning in... Tultepec, including our firefighter and police colleagues who lost their lives saving those of many others," read a tweet from the Red Cross in the state of Mexico, where Tultepec is located.

At least 24 people were killed including a minor and 49 wounded, officials said.

The victims included four firefighters and five police.

Hundreds of soldiers, police and firefighters deployed to the neighborhood of Xahuento, on the outskirts of the town, cordoned off a wide area around the smoldering workshops where the explosions ocurred.

An anguished teenager was asking rescue workers for news about his father, a fireworks maker who worked in the area.

"I left school to look for him as soon as we heard about the explosion. But they won't let me through and nobody is giving me any information," said Allan Osvaldo, 14.

Hours later, his father reappeared, badly shaken but safe.

"I was in my workshop when I heard the explosion. I ran out and was immediately enveloped in the cloud of smoke," said the father, 43-year-old Osvaldo Urban, his voice trembling.

"I'm so grateful to be OK."

'It rained fire'

An overpowering smell of gunpowder hung in the air, and occasional detonations could still be heard hours after the original accident.

Charred furniture and bricks hurled by the explosions could be seen lying in the grass, even outside the ample security perimeter.

"I was having breakfast when there was a terrible blast. We left the house running and I saw a huge white cloud in the sky, as if it were going to rain except today it rained fire," said Alondra Perez, 62, who lives across the road.

Two badly damaged firetrucks were visible beside one totaled workshop, and a police officer told AFP an ambulance had been completely charred in one blast.

"People here insist on continuing to make fireworks. It's their tradition. But they don't gauge the consequences of these tragedies. It's infuriating, because our firefighter colleagues... end up dead saving these people," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

History of accidents

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto sent his condolences to the victims' families on Twitter and said the army and interior ministry were supporting the state rescue effort.

Authorities suspended all fireworks sales in the area.

State Interior Minister Alejandro Ozuna said an "exhaustive review" would be conducted of all workshops' permits.

"We know it's a way of life and a tradition, but we have to send the community the message, and they have to understand, that it must be regulated, for their own safety," he said.

Tultepec is known for making the fireworks that Mexicans traditionally use to celebrate holidays and saints' days. It has been hit by devastating explosions in the past.

Women embrace at the site of a series of explosions at fireworks warehouses in Tultepec, central Mexico, on July 5, 2018

Women embrace at the site of a series of explosions at fireworks warehouses in Tultepec, central Mexico, on July 5, 2018.

On June 6, seven people were killed in a similar blast.

And on December 20, 2016, 42 people were killed and 70 injured in a series of spectacular explosions at Tultepec's San Pablito market, the largest fireworks market in the country.

On that occasion, investigators say a rocket exploded at the market crowded with holiday shoppers at the time and set off a chain reaction of other blasts.

Despite the dangers, Tultepec's fireworks tradition is deeply rooted.

"This is our work, this is how we eat," said retired fireworks maker Manuel Guerrero, 63, at the scene of Thursday's explosions.

"Half the town makes its living from this. If you're one of the unlucky ones, well, that's the way it is. We just have to go on. Life goes on."

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