An accidental fireworks explosion touched off a blaze that raced through a busy strip mall in southeastern Venezuela, killing at least 12 people and injuring five others, authorities said Tuesday. The death toll from Monday's fire was expected to rise in the next 24 hours as crews picked through the charred debris where some victims could be trapped, said Antonio Rivero, a director with the national civil protection services.
State-run Bolivarian News Agency reported at least 18 people had died. The fire, which broke out in fireworks stored at a weapons store in the southeastern city of San Felix, destroyed five neighboring stores packed with shoppers and four vehicles parked nearby.
State broadcaster Venezolana de Television showed footage of bulldozers pulling away heaps of charred wreckage and gaping black holes carved out of storefronts by the fire.
It was not clear what set off the fireworks in the shop in downtown San Felix, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southeast of Caracas. But Rivero criticized the management of the weapons store for neglecting to take adequate safety precautions.
Officials said firefighters were having difficulty accessing certain areas amid high temperatures and the threat of remaining weapons cartridges detonating.
Rescue operations were also hampered by the possibility that highly toxic substances, especially mercury which can be used in making munitions, may have contaminated the zone.
Fireworks are popular, especially during year-end holidays, and readily available in Venezuela, even though their sale is mostly prohibited. Many vendors stash their caches in storerooms or boxes out of sight.
The government, however, has tried to crack down on the contraband amid frequent accidents leading to injuries, deaths and fires, reports the AP. I.L.