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Mexico City Bans Fireworks; Blaze Toll at 62

December 13, 1988|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Government officials Monday banned fireworks in the capital as firefighters continued to search for victims among the charred ruins of the market where a blaze touched off by a series of explosions killed at least 62 people and injured dozens more.

Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis, standing atop a police car and surrounded by angry residents, signed the order outlawing the sale and use of fireworks like those that set off the blaze Sunday.

"This is a terrible tragedy," Camacho declared. "We have made this decision, but it is not sufficient."

Dazed residents said most of the fireworks vendors in the market had been selling their wares illegally with the knowledge of authorities. Several expressed doubt that the government would enforce the new law.

Wants 'Deeds, Not Words'

"We want deeds, not words!" a woman shouted to the mayor.

Up until Monday, the use of fireworks was legal in Mexico City, but they could be sold only with a permit.

Residents said they had complained to officials repeatedly about the sale of fireworks in the candy section of the Merced market, an area sometimes called El Polvorin, or "The Powder Keg." They said there have been fires there before.

"They don't pay any attention to us," said Maria Cristina Ledezma, who fled her house above the market when her curtains caught fire. "There are many interests involved. The fireworks vendors buy permission. They collect money and take it to the delegate (borough official). . . . There were so many dead this time."

The blaze in the working-class market started about 2:30 p.m. Sunday when a package of fireworks exploded in a narrow alley crowded with street vendors and holiday shoppers, according to fire officials and witnesses.

Fire officials and spokesmen for the attorney general's office said 62 people were killed in the fire. Police and Red Cross officials said 64 people were killed. Dozens of others were treated at city hospitals with first-, second- and third-degree burns and smoke inhalation.

Fire officials said more than 200 temporary stalls in the alleys and about 60 permanent stalls inside the market were destroyed. Many apartments in a 43-unit building above the market were ruined, as were three buildings that served as warehouses for the fireworks.

"First a few fireworks went off, and then there was a whole chain of explosions," said Antonio Ramirez Lopez, a watchman at the market. "Many people, instead of getting out of there, ran inside their stalls and closed the metal curtains."

Blackened Stalls

Most of the dead were found behind metal stall doors that were bloated outward from the intense heat. In the early morning, vendors crouched outside their blackened stalls waiting for firefighters to open the doors.

Police, who cordoned off the area to prevent vandalism, hauled out bags of unexploded fireworks.

The Merced is one of the largest markets in the heart of Mexico City, with many square blocks of fresh produce, meat, grains and clothing. The candy market is filled with homemade sweets, Christmas decorations and--often half-hidden under piles of legal goods--the illegal fireworks.

It is widely known in Mexico City that the multi-colored fireworks are sold in the candy market from September to January, when they are used to celebrate a series of holidays from Independence Day on Sept. 16 to the Virgin of Guadalupe Day on Dec. 12.

Hector Hernandez Guerra, head of markets for the Venustiano Carranza Delegation--the rough equivalent of a municipal borough--insisted that the government did its best to stop the sale of fireworks.

"Every year we collect quantities of fireworks, but the people don't understand," he said.

Antonietta Leyva, a resident of the apartments above the candy market, said a similar fire in 1985 also took several lives. "Then the earthquake came, and everyone forgot about the fireworks," she said.

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