UPDATE: A third employee of the factory has died of burns and other injuries suffered in the explosion, according to El Diario de Juárez. He is identified as Jorge López Morales, 41. López was admitted to a Juárez hospital after the explosion with burns on 80 percent of his body. One of the partners in the plant is Chihuahua businessman Eloy Vallina, who also is a developer at San Jeronimo across from the Santa Teresa, N.M., border crossing as well as other interests. The plant has operated in Juarez since 1998 with a series of accidents and other problems, El Diario reports.
A deadly explosion at a Ciudad Juárez export factory, or maquiladora, left two workers dead and about 50 others injured on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 24. Early news accounts reported that two or three other people were possibly missing after the blast. The disaster was traced to an old boiler that exploded, sending walls crumbling and a floor collapsing in the plant operated by candy maker Sunrise Confections.
“A very strong explosion was heard,” employee Mario Lopez said, sobbing. “I then saw part the factory falling down and the people swept up in it, many of them burned. There were many shouts.”
Fire broke out on the plant’s premises, fueled by spilled chemicals and sugar, and windows of homes in an adjacent residential district were reportedly shattered. While ambulances were en route to the scene, employees of a neighboring Johnson Controls plant assisted workers evacuated from the destroyed candy factory.
Emergency personnel transported the injured survivors to Mexican Social Security Institute hospitals. Eleven of the hospitalized victims were reported in serious or critical condition, some with second or third-degree burns.
Photos published in border media showed a scene of devastation.
Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte and Ciudad Juárez Mayor Enrique Serrano, who took office earlier this month, pledged full support for the injured and their families. Duarte visited hospitalized victims, and added that severely injured patients could be moved to specialized treatment facilities in Texas.
Also known locally as Blueberry, the plant is one of two Juárez factories that manufacture popular candies for large U.S. retailers, including the Real Annoying Orange Treats and Plants vs. Zombies gummies pitched during the Halloween season.
The plants are owned by Mount Franklin Foods, LLC of El Paso. Growing out of the historic border pecan industry, Mount Franklin Foods also runs a nut processing plant and corporate distribution center in El Paso.
In late 2008, as the Great Recession was hammering the borderland, Frontera NorteSur reported on a labor dispute at Blueberry. While the main issue revolved around severance payments for more than 100 laid-off workers, former employees charged unsafe conditions at the plant had caused workers to lose limbs and suffer physical ailments.
In the aftermath of this week’s disaster, local media reported that Blueberry experienced two smaller fires, in 2005 and 2007 respectively, as well as a worker fatality in 2006. The manufacturer also had issues with authorities over wastewater discharges, air emissions and tax payments, according to the newspaper El Diario de Juárez.
The Blueberry explosion followed several other incidents this year at maquiladoras in Juárez and Chihuahua City that injured or sickened large groups of workers.
Early this week, 150 workers were evacuated and about 20 reportedly hospitalized after a leak of hexavalent chromium at the Arnprior Aerospace plant in Chihuahua City. Inhaled hexavalent chromium is considered a human carcinogen, and use of the substance has been restricted within the European Union.
Based in Canada, Arnprior Aerospace defines it mission as “providing mechanical structures used for multiple applications to aerospace and defense markets.” All the products made in Mexico are exported to the United States and Canada, according to the company’s website.
Additionally, an Amex plant in Juárez was temporarily evacuated earlier this month because of a reported bomb threat.
The Oct. 24 Blueberry tragedy inspired scores of critical postings on Juárez websites and social media. The Office of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor announced that it was opening an investigation into the explosion. Unidentified workers were quoted as saying that the boiler had not been properly maintained.
The two fatalities were tentatively identified as 18-year-old Ezequiel Salinas and Ivan Vazquez, also 18. There was no immediate comment from Sunrise Confections about the disaster.
The Blueberry explosion raised questions about emergency response procedures and capabilities, with reports of ambulance shortages, over-taxed health care providers and hundreds of anxious relatives of workers without ready access to information about their loved ones. One news account reported that plant security personnel denied access to fire and civil protection crews for fifteen minutes, which if true, would constitute a legal violation. Mexican soldiers activated their emergency response plan, taking charge of the scene.
Sources: Lapolaka.com, October 24 and 25, 2013. Arrobajuarez.com, October 24 and 25, 2013. El Diario de Juarez, October 24 and 25, 2013. Articles by Martin Orquiz, Daniel Dominguez, Gabriela Minjares and editorial staff. Nortedigital.com.mx. October 24 and 25, 2013. Articles by Uriel Ornelas and Miguel Vargas. El Universal, October 24, 2013. Articles by Luis Alonso Fierro, David Fuentes and editorial staff. El Paso Times, October 24, 2013. Article by Lorena Figueroa. El Diario de Chihuahua, October 21, 2013. El Mexicano/OEM, October 3, 2013.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico