When he was a kid, Jose Guadalupe Solano Sanchez, who goes by the nickname of “Doc Pyrotecnia,” would hear the boom of the fireworks on the streets of Tultepec, Mexico, and imagine that it was the sound of a mysterious and exciting giant creature. He fell in love with watching the pyrotechnics light up the sky.
“It’s a magical, marvelous town,” he told The Washington Post. “We are a people of artisans, musicians, pyrotechnics. It’s a form of expression, of art, of making people happy,” he added.
For many of its residents, Tultepec does have a certain magic to it. On each of the town’s many religious holidays, fireworks illuminate the skies, the whistles and blasts signaling a night of music and celebration. Crowds flock to the town – located just north of Mexico City and considered the country’s capital of pyrotechnics – for its biggest festival of the year in March, just to see the castles of fire and the brightly colored bulls parading through the streets.
“It’s incredible to see the work that people do here,” one resident, Mary Rubio, said in an interview with The Post. “It’s what moves the town.”
But it’s also what nearly consumed it Tuesday afternoon, when a powerful chain-reaction explosion caused an open-air fireworks market in the town to erupt in flames and smoke, killing 29 people and leaving dozens with critical burns. Officials have not yet said what may have caused the blast, which destroyed more than 80 percent of the 300 stalls in the San Pablito fireworks market, its booths packed with merchandise for its peak season leading up to the holidays.
Mexico State authorities said 72 people were being treated for injuries from Tuesday’s explosion. At least 10 children were among the hospitalized, some with burns on 90 percent of their bodies. Three children were transferred to Galveston, Texas, for additional medical treatment. One of the deceased was 3 months old.
The extent of the burns made it difficult to identify some of the victims, said Eruviel Ávila, governor of the State of Mexico, as he walked through one of the hospitals treating the injured. “The State of Mexico is in mourning for this lamentable accident,” he said on Facebook live. “We had a very difficult day.”
For some townspeople, magical or not, the dangerous tradition of artisan firework production has taken the lives of far too many.
It was the third big explosion at the market since 2005, and the latest in a series of other fatal explosions that have scarred the densely populated town of 150,000 people in recent years.
Tultepec is not alone in such misfortune.
Across Mexico, fireworks play a central cultural role in religious celebrations, and similar deadly accidents resulting from fireworks are not uncommon across the rest of the country. They frequently occur at the end of the year, as Christmas draws near. In 2002, a blast at a market in the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz killed 29; in 1999, 63 people died when an explosion of illegally stored fireworks destroyed part of the city of Celaya; and in 1988, a fireworks blast in Mexico City’s La Merced market killed at least 68.
Rubio was in her house with her three children when she suddenly started hearing the faint, shrill sound of a firework setting off – a whistle, a pop and a crack to which she was accustomed in Tultepec. But soon the sounds became more frequent and frightening. “Then, it was no longer normal,” she told The Post.
Suddenly, a loud blast caused the ground and the windows to tremble. Rubio ran outside with neighbors, and from the corner of her block saw a cloud of smoke rising above the market, about a mile and a half away. For the next three hours, she heard ambulances racing past her house.
As soon as Solano Sanchez heard the blast, he jumped on his bike and raced to the market to help rescue people from the rubble. Having lived in Tultepec his entire life, he has witnessed many previous explosions – but, he said, “this one was different.”
He couldn’t enter the center of the market, because the flames continued to blaze, the smoke enveloping the area. From the fringes, he saw people passed out, with severe burns and lacerations from stones that had flown in the air from the blast. As he helped carry people to ambulances, he heard people screaming and calling out names of family members. “You couldn’t see anything,” he said.
“I’ve never felt something this sad,” he said. The loss of lives was devastating. And the loss of the market would be a massive blow to the community. More than three-quarters of the town’s residents are in some way involved in the pyrotechnic industry, he said.
“It’s what sustains the municipality,” he said.
The market’s vendors were expected to sell 100 tons of fireworks by the end of its season, which lasts from August through December, according to Mexican news outlet Milenio.com.
Juan Ignacio Rodarte Corder, director general of the Mexican Institute of Pyrotechnics said recently that the market was the “safest” in Latin America. Its posts were perfectly designed, he said, with enough space between them to prevent flare-ups in the case of a spark. The president of the market recently pledged that all security measures would be present at the market, including fire extinguishers, water, sandbags and emergency personnel.
Avila, the governor, said that in addition to paying for victims’ medical bills, the state will provide some financial support to the families of artisans who lost all of their business in the blast.
Nonetheless, residents say the explosion struck at the heart of the city’s economy and soul. For more than 200 years, Tultepec residents have specialized in the production of the artisan fireworks, taught through the generations.
Fireworks can be set off on any of the region’s numerous saint festivals, in any given neighborhood. During the town’s largest festival of the year, the National Pyrotechnic Festival, crowds from around the country and the world flock to the town for eight days of musical pyrotechnics and “castle” contests, in which stunning towers of wood, reed and paper become illuminated with fireworks. As the pyrotechnics are set off, they are often coordinated with music. In the festivals’ most popular event, “little bulls” – or brightly colored firework frames in the shape of bulls – parade through the streets before they are burned in a spectacular display of fireworks.
“It’s beautiful,” Rubio said.
Solano Sanchez, “Doc Pyrotecnia,” 30, is a musician who aims to promote the town’s pyrotechnics industry. His mother, father and grandparents all work in the production of pyrotechnics. Because they work in production, not sales, they were in an area on the edge of town far from the market at the time of the explosion.
But for another resident, Omar García Cardiel, who has lived in the town for 16 years and has witnessed three or four explosions, thinks the market should be prohibited.
“For me, it’s not culture, it’s entertainment,” he said. “Look at what happens, people lose their lives.”
And Tuesday’s blast was far from the first time. In 2005, a similar explosion erupted at the San Pablito Market, leveling hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico’s independence day. A year later, a similar incident at the same market destroyed hundreds of stands.
About five years later, explosives in other parts of the town left one dead and eight injured. And this year, at least three other explosions have taken place in different parts of the municipality. In March, three people died and five were injured after a fireworks explosion on the edges of the city.
An earlier explosion in 1998, which decimated two city blocks, killed 10 people and injured about 50 others, garnered international attention for exposing “the worst-kept secret of this self-proclaimed ‘Capital of Pyrotechnics,’ ” The Post reported at the time.
Even residents who support the fireworks industry, such as Solano Sanchez, think better safety precautions could be taken. Residents and vendors need better technology, Solano Sanchez said, and more guidance on how to react when a spark ignites. But for the sake of his town’s tradition, of his ancestry and of his family’s livelihood, he hopes the craft does not discontinue.
“There are a lot of people who criticize this art, but we see it differently,” he said. “It’s our daily life.”