21 Dec 2016

Mexico fireworks blast: Death toll now 31

9:28 pm on 21 December 2016

An explosion at a fireworks market outside Mexico City has killed at least 31 people and injured dozens more, officials say.

Firefighters and volunteers work amid the smouldering debris left by a blast in a fireworks market near Mexico City.

Firefighters and volunteers work amid the smouldering debris left by the blast in the fireworks market near Mexico City. Photo: AFP

It is the third time in just over a decade that explosions have 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.

Video from the scene showed a large number of fireworks rocketing into the air as they caught fire. Dozens of paramedics and police were called to the scene.

"People were crying everywhere and desperately running in all directions," said 20-year-old witness Cesar Carmona.

State governor Eruviel Avila said 13 children had suffered burns to more than 90 percent of their bodies, and were being sent to the US city of Galveston in Texas for treatment.

He also vowed to find and punish those responsible and to provide economic assistance to those who had lost their livelihoods.

The federal attorney general's office has opened an investigation, saying in a statement that six separate blasts caused the destruction.

Tultepec emergency services head Isidro Sanchez said earlier that a lack of safety measures was the likely cause of the blasts.

The federal police said a forensic team had been sent to investigate and that at least 70 people had been injured. The state's top prosecutor, meanwhile, raised the death toll late on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT) to 31, most of whom died at the market.

Another official, Jose Manzur, said more than 80 percent of the 300 stalls at the market were destroyed by the explosions.

The market was inspected by safety officials last month and no irregularities were found, he said.

Local media reported there were 300 tonnes of fireworks at the market at the time of the explosions.

The head of a local pyrotechnics association told online publication Animal Politico last week that the fireworks market was the safest in Latin America, featuring "perfectly designed stalls" that could prevent any chain reaction in the event of a spark.

'Everyone started running'

Photos from police and medical personnel at the scene showed several injured people among the destroyed market stalls, with brick buildings scorched by the heat.

"The sound of blasts started to go off and we thought it was a nearby fireworks workshop," local resident Alejandra Pretel told AFP.

However, she said it soon became clear the entire market was at risk.

"My neighbours said they felt everything shake, but I didn't realise because I was running away," she said.

Another eyewitness, Federico Juarez, told Reuters those nearby had to dodge falling debris.

"We were near the bathrooms when there was an explosion at a stall and then a series of blasts came one after the other," he said.

"Everyone started running to escape as bricks and pieces of concrete fell everywhere."

The president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, tweeted condolences to the families of those who lost their lives, and wished a speedy recovery to the injured.

He also said members of the defence forces were assisting in the emergency.

The San Pablito market was heavily damaged by similar fires in September 2005, when a chain of explosions just before the country's independence day celebrations injured dozens of people. Almost a year later, another detonation gutted the area again.

- Reuters / BBC / RNZ