Christmastime was in full gear that gray December afternoon. Thousands of Mexico City residents thronged the narrow street stalls surrounding the sprawling La Merced Market, east of the Zocalo. Many shopped for Christmas present, others for candles and fireworks in honor of the Day of the Virgen of Guadalupe, celebrated every December 12th, which would be the next day.
La Merced market is a huge complex of different markets east of the downtown area in the seedy and notorious La Merced neighborhood. Prostitutes and pickpockets abound. The market is divided into several areas: The Meat market, the vegetable market, the flower market, the herb market and the Ampudia Market, which is mostly candy and toys.
None of the unsuspecting people crowding Ramon Corona Street, next to Ampudia Market, imagined the hellish horror that would be unleashed that day.
Illegal Fireworks are often sold in the city and throughout the country. Though forbidden, fireworks form a part of Mexican life and culture. Illegal or Legal, they are easily found hidden under the candy stalls in Ampudia Market. Stashed in a corner, hidden in the countless boxes and crates that crowd Merced market, people fear them but also turn the other way. Improperly handled, they can unleash a holocaust of death and fire. On December 11th, 1988, tragedy rocked Ampudia Market.
Nobody to this day knows how it started, but a fire broke out at a candy stall on Corona Street. A fire that quickly reached a box of illegal fireworks, which then began to burn and detonate. Dozens of people ran terrified at the sound of the exploding fireworks and gunpowder, which started a flash fire that quickly raced down the stalls, incinerating everything in its path: people, paper, candy and more fireworks.
More fireworks exploded as the screams of the victims burning alive were heard all throught La Merced market. Then came the huge blast.
The fire reached a warehouse in a building in Ampudia Market and exploded. Pounds of gunpowder, used in the making of the fireworks, blew up, killing dozens of people. The fire still raged inside the Ampudia building, spreading to apartments on the upper floors. Dozens were trapped behind the iron roll up doors of the market storerooms where they sought refuge from the fire and explosions. These storerooms proved to be deathtraps as many contained even more fireworks, which then exploded.
Red Cross ambulances and firefighters quickly raced to La Merced market and extinguished the fire on Corona Street. The toll was grim. 72 persons had been killed in the blasts and fire, including 12 children and 25 women. 83 more persons were injured or burned and required treatment.
The day after, The Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City mayor Manuel Camacho Solis toured the fire-ruined area. Dozens of relatives of the dead mobbed him demanding justice. Vendors who lost everything tossed down soggy and burned cardboard and debris at the mayor demanding those responsible for the negligence and corruption of allowing clandestine fireworks to be sold in such a populated area.
He declared the sale of fireworks illegal in the Federal District and the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City greater area). None of the vendors responsible for the tragedy had valid permits. Rarely any ever do.
It wasnt the last fireworks related disaster at La Merced or in Mexico. Fires routinely break out at the market, but none have been as devastating as the one on December 11th 1988.
In 1999, a market exploded in Celaya, Guanajuato, due to the burning of an illegal cache of gunpowder and fireworks. 65 were killed. On New Years Eve 2002 the Veracruz city market burned, killing 32.
In 1998, in Tultepec, an illegal fireworks shop blew up, devastating 5 city blocks, and killing 20.