TULTEPEC, Mexico (Reuters) - Three times Celso Monroy has witnessed Mexico’s San Pablito fireworks market erupting into a fireball of pungent smoke, blinding flashes and ear-splitting explosions.
On Tuesday, Monroy again escaped with his life, but for the first time there were bodies strewn about as he rushed to rescue his family from the scenes of carnage emerging from shattered stalls that had bustled with Christmas cheer moments earlier.
At least 32 people died and dozens were injured when the huge fireworks bazaar on the northern fringe of Mexico City exploded in a dazzling array of lethal pyrotechnics that razed the marketplace to a blasted plain of smoking rubble.
In little over a decade, the country’s most celebrated fireworks market in Tultepec has blown up three times, with the latest massive blast raising serious questions about why the festive public was again exposed to such deadly risks.
“This was the biggest and the worst,” Monroy, 41, decked out in a cowboy hat and boots, said after his last escape. “It was really loud, like a bomb. Lots of people were running and looking for help, and those we could get out, we got out.”
“There were lots of colours, I can’t say it was beautiful because of the sadness and loss,” said Monroy, who has spent more than a decade making rockets and fireworks at the market. “There are no winners here. There’s nothing here.”
As the wind kicked up around lunchtime, tiny funnels of wind whipped through the wasteland, lifting trash, dust and burned fragments into a series of dancing columns.
Alan Jesus Chavez, a local medical student who rushed to the scene as the blasts went off and the market stalls blazed, worked to pull people out of the burning ruins.
While handing out milk and water, a woman came to his side to ask him to free her baby, who was trapped under rubble.
“But when we got everything off and found the baby, it was already dead,” said Chavez, who felt the pulse of five of the people who lost their lives. “When I got out of here and got home, I cried because of all the dead people I had seen.”
The government has yet to say what sparked the tragedy, noting only that there were six separate blasts. Federal investigators pored through the wreckage for clues on Wednesday.
Local resident Ivan Perez, 23, whose girlfriend works at the market, said there was a rumour that the explosions began when a woman accidentally dropped a “brujita”, a kind of banger.
Such was the economic importance of the bazaar to locals, he said, that bribes were sometimes paid to sell fireworks not permitted by official regulations, Perez said.
But after the third tragedy in just over a decade, the market’s prospects looked grim, he added.
“I don’t think it will get back on its feet,” he said.
In 2005, fireworks maker Monroy was just leaving when the explosions broke out; nearly a year later, he was standing on a bridge overlooking the market when the sky lit up again.
On Tuesday, Monroy had gone outside the surrounding fence to fix his bike when the sudden, rapid blasts began propelling huge clumps of concrete through the air. Fear gripped him because his family were still inside along with hundreds of others.
They escaped with only a fright. Others were not so lucky.
“I saw a lot charred bodies and dead. It’s a nightmare that in time you forget,” said Monroy. “The children were crying, shouting, asking for help.”
Editing by Dave Graham and Lisa Shumaker