Mexico’s port city of Veracruz was in mourning for at least 28 people killed in a massive New Year’s Eve fireworks explosion which ripped through a crowded central market.
Sobbing friends and families made their way to the site of charred rubble yesterday to see if their loved ones were among the dead.
Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition and officials asked residents to provide dental records to help identify the bodies.
Authorities said at least 28 people were killed and 41 injured, 25 of whom were in hospital.
Another 47 people were missing.
The explosion also destroyed eight businesses and 70 market stands.
With tears welling up in his eyes, Manuel Echeverria, 68, recounted how he and his 12-year-old grandson ran with hundreds of others to escape flying debris and a raging inferno that sent flames shooting 130 feet high.
“The flames and the black smoke were coming up,” he said. “It was thundering and the ground was shaking underneath us. We were all running, crying and yelling. It was horrible.”
Echeverria stood behind police tape cordoning off the city block, which was littered with the remnants of destroyed wooden fruit stands, the blackened hulks of burned-out cars and ash-covered grapes.
When the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Day, Mexicans traditionally eat a grape for each month of the year for good luck.
Victims were burned alive in the streets and in shops where some had taken refuge from the explosions. Authorities said that they found the bodies of 13 people at a clothing store, including five in a back closet.
Inside the blackened store, the metal blades of ceiling fans drooped like rabbit ears, melted by the fire’s intense heat.
Officials said the explosions were caused by a spark that set off boxes of fireworks being sold illegally at the Hidalgo market, a major shopping area in the Gulf port 185 miles east of Mexico City. The blasts ignited a fire that consumed an entire city block.
It was the deadliest fireworks explosion in Mexico since September 26, 1999, when 4 tons of illegally stored fireworks and gunpowder exploded in central Guanajuato state, killing 63 people.
In 1988, at least 68 people were killed during a fireworks explosion in Mexico City’s sprawling La Merced central market.
Mexicans use fireworks to celebrate everything from weddings to national holidays, and a nationwide crackdown on the sale of illegal explosives has made little headway.
Soldiers on today guarded warehouses holding four tons of illegal fireworks that authorities had seized the day before.
Police conducted a raid on the illegal fireworks stands at the Hidalgo market on December 24, but residents beat them back with rocks, bottles, and sticks.
Veracruz draws visitors from across Mexico for its extravagant tropical-style celebrations that include giant papier-mache dolls and dancing clowns on stilts. Its most popular attraction is the annual Carnival celebration in February.
But yesterday, this steamy city of a half million people began 2003 with a sombre silence, cancelling a pre-dawn New Year’s Day parade that traditionally includes impressive fireworks displays.
Anxious residents huddled outside the explosion site and made their way to a palm-lined plaza where officials had posted a list of victims’ names.
Rosa Hernandez, 39, stumbled up to the blasted-out city block and began to sob uncontrollably when she was told that her best friend and son’s godmother, Lupita, had died.
“Why did this happen to her? Why? I loved my Lupita,” she said.
Hernandez said that for more than 17 years she had worked alongside Lupita in the market selling prickly pear cactus pads, a popular dish in Mexico.
Echeverria and his family, who planned to shoot off fireworks to celebrate the New Year, instead spent their holiday destroying the explosives.
“I’m never going to buy them again,” he said. ”Authorities really need to crack down on this.”