October 16, 1998

Explosion at Fireworks Storehouse Kills 10

By Adolfo Garza

TULTEPEC, Mexico - The sharp smell of burnt sulfur hung over a working-class neighborhood today after an explosion at a fireworks storehouse killed 10 people and wounded dozens more north of Mexico City.

The midmorning blast leveled a two-block area in Tultepec, 20 miles from Mexico City, and was heard miles away.

Residents stood stunned Tuesday as emergency crews and soldiers rushed past rows of damaged homes to a rubble-filled crater where a gas explosion had set off gunpowder used to make fireworks.

The fireworks trade is the lifeblood for most families in this town, and many operate without permits. Residents blocked journalists from the area for nearly four hours Tuesday, fearing their reports on the explosion would bring a government crackdown on the fireworks industry.

Mexico state Gov. Cesar Camacho Quiroz said at least 10 people died - including a 10-year-old boy - and 27 were hurt in the explosion. But a paramedic at the scene, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said he had counted 14 bodies, and that at least 45 people were injured.

The blast destroyed 16 houses, heavily damaged another 30 and slightly damaged 150 others, officials said.

``The explosion was started by a gas tank leak, which spread and caused an explosion in products used to make fireworks,'' said Gen. Francisco Fernandez Solis, general director of public safety.

``We expect to find more (bodies) when we clear the rubble,'' he added.

The Televisa network reported that 15 people were missing.

The blast flattened 550-square-yard area that once held modest one- and two-story homes. Slabs of concrete lay broken over the rubble. Bent steel rods poked up from the mounds. The remnants of foundations marked where some homes had stood.

Soldiers with automatic rifles guarded the area Tuesday. Others were seen carrying away boxes filled with gunpowder, sulfur and flares, the government news agency Notimex reported.

Tultepec is well known for its homemade fireworks. Some families work clandestinely even though the illegal use of explosives is punishable by one to eight years imprisonment under Mexican law.

Camacho said the Defense Ministry, which enforces laws on the use of explosives, should look into the illegal use of gunpowder in Tultepec.

In June 1997, an explosion in a Tultepec home producing illegal fireworks killed three people.

And in December 1988, a Mexico City marketplace where illegal fireworks were sold exploded and set off a string of fires, killing 62 people and injuring 83.

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