Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Powder Keg

A blast in a fireworks market near Mexico City kills dozens and renews calls for consistent fire regulation

BY ANGELO VERZONI

In the hands of professionals, fireworks can be a source of joy. But they also pose a major life safety threat, as demonstrated in December when a series of massive explosions at a fireworks market in Mexico killed at least 39 people and injured dozens more. As of January 31, the cause of the blast was still under investigation.

The explosion occurred at the San Pablito fireworks market, located in the city of Tultepec, about 20 miles north of Mexico City. The large open-air market has a history of explosions. In 2005, a customer trying to test a product triggered a blast that injured more than 120 people. A year later, after the market had been rebuilt, another explosion leveled nearly all of the vendor booths. Smaller explosions have occurred, too. In a bitter twist, just over a week before the December explosion the city issued a statement in which the director general of the Mexican Pyrotechnic Institute claimed the San Pablito market was the safest in all of Latin America.

Despite these incidents, the market has remained popular. It typically includes 300 vendors arranged across five acres of land, according to Antonio Macias, NFPA’s Latin American and Caribbean representative who is based in Mexico City, and at any given time an estimated 1,000 customers are browsing the stalls. In September, over 600,000 pounds of black powder was sold at San Pablito, and that figure was projected to at least double in December. Business thrives in the face of danger, Macias said, because Tultepec has a long and proud history of crafting what are considered some of the best fireworks in the country. “It’s a way of life for them,” Macias said.

Explosions like the ones at San Pablito are common throughout Mexico, and Macias said he hopes the country will adopt NFPA 1, Fire Code, as its national fire code to help combat the problem. “It would be a big step in organizing the fire prevention system in Mexico,” he said. Mexico’s 32 states have inconsistent regulations regarding fire protection, Macias said, and there is a general lack of knowledge and training on fire safety.

Macias has sent copies of NFPA standards to the federal and local officials who will be responsible for rebuilding the San Pablito market, and he is optimistic the city will rebuild the market with fire and life safety as a priority.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images