A fire engulfed Mexico's famous fireworks market on Thursday, setting off a chain of explosions in a town northeast of the nation's capital that destroyed hundreds of stands just ahead of Independence Day celebrations.
There were no reports of deaths and only three serious injuries were reported, according to Mexico state Civil Defense Director Roberto Vazquez.
He said hundreds had been treated for nervous shock or cuts and bruises they suffered as they frantically raced from the exploding marketplace in Tultepec, a few kilometers northeast of Mexico City.
Vendors at the San Pablito Market said that despite signs warning against smoking and lighting the merchandise, a customer who had just purchased fireworks lit one and threw it, accidentally setting off a chain of explosions that destroyed all 300 corrugated-metal and wood vending stalls, and damaged or destroyed 23 vehicles in an area of about 4,000m2. A towering plume of gray smoke rose over the charred and shattered remains immediately after the explosion.
The initial blast was thought to have occurred at about 1:45pm.
Hours later, dump trucks continued to haul away small mountains of wood and metal, as ambulances stood by to attend any remaining injured. At one point, a clump of small firecrackers strewn across the ground behind the ambulances began to explode, sending rescue personnel running to the area with water houses as already nervous vendors and onlookers backed away.
A large percentage of the residents earn a living from fireworks, a tradition that goes back generations. A sign on the entrance to the town proclaims: "Welcome to Tultepec, the fireworks capital."
"It is a custom and a tradition," said Felipe Silva, 43, who sells the explosives to support his 30-year-old wife and six children, aged 5 to 19. "If we don't sell fireworks, then others don't sell tortillas, or goods from the convenience stores and it has a chain effect on the town."
Silva said he was at his stand when he heard the explosion and saw flames.
"We all ran out of there, leaving everything behind," he said. "Because saving lives was the most important thing."
The explosion occurred hours before one of Mexico's biggest annual fireworks displays, the midnight Independence Day festivities that are celebrated with rockets and explosives.
Silva said Sept. 15 is the top-selling day for fireworks, and dozens of vendors had set up tables in the market's temporary stalls.