A massive explosion decimated a fireworks market outside the Mexican capital, leaving it a charred wasteland and killing at least 31 people with dozens more injured.
Television images showed a flurry of pyrotechnics exploding on Tuesday into the early afternoon sky as a giant plume of smoke rose above the market. Fireworks detonated in a peal of clattering bursts reminiscent of a war zone.
The technicolour blast was the third such explosion in just over a decade to hit the popular San Pablito marketplace in Tultepec, about 32km north of Mexico City. The detonations struck in the run-up to the busy Christmas holiday when many Mexicans stock up on fireworks.
“People were crying everywhere and desperately running in all directions,” said 20-year-old witness Cesar Carmona.
Some 13 children suffered burns to more than 90 percent of their bodies and were being sent to the US city of Galveston in Texas for treatment, said Eruviel Avila, the governor of the State of Mexico, where Tultepec is located.
The state’s top prosecutor raised the death toll late on Tuesday to 31, most of whom died at the market.
Avila also vowed to find and punish those responsible for the blast and provide economic assistance to those who had lost their livelihoods.
Isidro Sanchez, the head of Tultepec emergency services, said a lack of sufficient safety measures was the likely cause of the blast.
The federal police said it had sent a forensic team to investigate the incident, adding at least 70 people had been injured.
Videos from the scene showed people frantically fleeing, while aerial footage revealed blackened stalls and a flattened tangle of metal and wood.
More than 80 percent of the 300 stalls at the market were destroyed by the explosion, said state official Jose Manzur. Local media reported there were 300 tonnes of fireworks at the market at the time of the explosion.
Federico Juarez was present when the first explosion rocked the market. “Everyone started running to escape as bricks and pieces of concrete fell everywhere,” he said.
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The blast is the latest in a long-running series of fatal explosions and industrial accidents that have roiled Mexico’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries.
Al Jazeera’s Monica Villamizar, reporting from Mexico City, said the market was packed with families doing their fireworks shopping ahead of the holiday period.
“It looks completely devastated. People are going through the debris, hoping to find people who survived, but obviously there is very little hope at this point,” she said.
Villamizar noted Mexico’s Institute of Polytechnics had declared San Pablito’s fireworks market the safest in Latin America. “There’s a lot of explaining from authorities as to what exactly went on,” she said.
A blast struck the Tultepec fireworks market in September 2005 just before independence day celebrations, injuring many people. Almost a year later, another detonation gutted the area again.
“I offer my condolences to the relatives of those who lost their lives in this accident and my wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured,” President Enrique Pena Nieto said in a tweet.
Pena Nieto is the former governor of the State of Mexico, the country’s largest which surrounds the capital.