GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – A fire raged through Guatemala’s largest open-air market yesterday, killing 15 people, officials said. Merchants claimed a cigarette touched off the blaze.

Sarah Royce
Firefighters at the site of a fire yesterday in the commercial sector of Guatemala City, Guatemala. A cigarette butt thrown into a stand selling fireworks ignited an enormous blaze in the largest open-air market in the country. (AP Photo)

The fire broke out in an area of illegal fireworks stands, set up temporarily near a section of the permanent market shops, fire department spokesman Ricardo Lemus said.

Fireworks are popular during the holidays.

The blaze quickly destroyed about 40 of the permanent market’s thousands of shops, which are spread across an area more than 2 square miles in size.

Some merchants stayed inside their stalls to protect their merchandise “instead of taking off running like I did,” said vendor Roberto Marroquin.

Lemus said that some who stayed behind were asphyxiated by toxic fumes. He put the death toll at 15.

Officials said the cause of blaze was still under investigation. But fireworks vendor Carlos Balan told The Associated Press that a still-burning cigarette butt accidentally landed in a fireworks stall, setting off fireworks and sparking a blaze that spread rapidly.

Several other merchants, who did not identify themselves, told the AP the same story.

Hundreds of firefighters manning 40 trucks fought the blaze. Lemus said two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and burns.

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