TULTEPEC, Mexico — A powerful chain-reaction explosion ripped through Mexico's best-known fireworks market on the northern outskirts of the capital Tuesday, killing at least 29 people, injuring scores more and sending a huge plume of charcoal-gray smoke billowing into the sky.
The blast leveled the open-air San Pablito Market in Tultepec in the middle of the afternoon as it bustled with shoppers stocking up on fireworks to celebrate Christmas and New Year's, reducing vendors' stands to piles of rubble, ash, and charred metal. It was the third devastating explosion and fire to ravage the market since 2005.
Crescencia Francisco Garcia said she was in the middle of the grid of stalls along with a few hundred others when the thunderous explosions began. She froze, reflexively looked up at the sky and then took off running through the smoke once she realized everyone was doing so. As she ran she saw people with burns and cuts, and lots of blood.
"Everything was catching fire. Everything was exploding," Francisco said. "The stones were flying, pieces of brick, everything was flying."
In comments broadcast on local TV news, Mexico State Gov. Eruviel Avila reported Tuesday night that in addition to the 26 people who perished at the market, three more victims died after being taken to hospitals. State Health Secretary Cesar Nomar Gomez Monge said 72 people were being treated for injuries including severe burns, in some cases over 90 percent of their bodies. Those hospitalized included 10 children.
Authorities have not yet said what may have caused the explosion but announced that an investigation had been opened.
"We are going to identify who is responsible," Avila said.
Sirens wailed and a heavy scent of gunpowder lingered in the air well after the explosion at the market, where most of the stalls were destroyed. The smoking, burned out shells of vehicles ringed the perimeter, and first responders and local residents wearing blue masks over their mouths combed through the ash and debris. Firefighters hosed down still-smoldering hotspots.
Tultepec Mayor Armando Portuguez Fuentes said the market was especially well stocked because demand for noisy firecrackers and rockets soars this time of year.
"We are obviously in the high season," Portuguez said. "There was more product than usual because we are a few days away from Christmas, a few days away from New Year's, and those are the days when the products made here are consumed the most."
Cesar Ornelas of Atizapan de Zaragoza was only 10 minutes into shopping with his son and his father when he heard the first explosions. He tried to run, but something knocked him to the ground from behind. He tried several times to get up, unsuccessfully, and ultimately his 15-year-old son Francisco had to drag him out.
"We didn't look back," said Ornelas, who suffered light burns and a large bruise over his left kidney. His white tank top had a fist-size burn on the chest. "We heard how the explosion was kind of going off bit by bit."
Nearly four hours later, he and Francisco limped gingerly out of the market area. Francisco said paramedics told him his leg was likely fractured by flying debris. Ornelas said his 67-year-old father, Ernesto, had run in a different direction and sought refuge in a nearby home. All the father's clothing was burned, and his face and arm were bloodied. An ambulance had spirited him to a hospital, but Ornelas wasn't sure where it was or how serious his injuries were.
"My condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in this accident and my wishes for a quick recovery for the injured," President Enrique Pena Nieto said via Twitter.
A similar fire engulfed the San Pablito Market in 2005, touching off a chain of explosions that leveled hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico's Independence Day. A year later a similar incident at the same market also destroyed hundreds of stands.
Portuguez, the Tultepec mayor, said the manufacture and sale of fireworks is a key part of the local economy. He added that it is regulated by law and under the "constant supervision" of the Defense Department, which oversees firearms and explosives.
"This is part of the activity of our town. It is what gives us identity," Portuguez said. "We know it is high-risk, we regret this greatly, but unfortunately many people's livelihoods depend on this activity."
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman reported from Tultepec, Mexico, and Peter Orsi reported from Mexico City.