The Astor Fire, Part 2: Explosions

Joan (Schiavon) Huesca (1928 – 1987)
Enrique Huesca (1909 – 2003)
Mercedes (Formento) Huesca (1924 – 2004)
Eduardo Huesca (1947 –  )
 

 

Introduction:  In the spring of 1978, my father, Gilbert Huesca, sent my mother, Joan Huesca, then 49, on a flight to Mexico City to visit his family while he stayed behind in California to tend to business matters.  During this visit, she and three of our relatives were caught in one of the deadliest fires in Mexico City’s history, known as the Astor Fire. My mother wrote a letter to thank her rescuers shortly after returning home to California. She recounted this nightmarish tale many times to my father, my sisters, and me in the years that followed, always emphasizing that life and the people in it are gifts to be treasured.  This is Part Two in a seven-part series about that night, based on my mother’s recollections, those of my relatives, and my research on the event.  – L.H.T.

 

The National Palace offices of the President of Mexico, Zócalo,  downtown
Mexico City.  
Courtesy Anthony Stanley, Flickr Images, Creative Commons.

 


To the Heroic Corp. of Firemen of the
Federal District,
Central de Bomberos,
Mexico City 1, D.F.

Gentlemen,

I was one of the eleven survivors of the recent Astor Fire on May 13, 1978.  Several brave and heroic firemen rescued all of us from the seventh floor of the building at V. Carranza #63.

At the time of our rescue, I had no conception of the seriousness or the extent of the fire.

 

              – Excerpt from letter dated June 14, 1978, from Joan Huesca 
                  to the Mexico City Heroic Corps of Firemen
 

 

  
Unbeknownst to my mother or the relatives she was visiting, the fire that had trapped them in their penthouse apartment had been caused by an act of terrorism in the neighboring Astor department store. 

It had not been an isolated incident.  In the months leading up to the fire, there had been a rash of explosions in banks and other facilities in major Mexican cities.  The federal government had been cracking down on a number of revolutionary individuals and organizations.  A conglomeration of guerilla groups known as the People’s Union came together in early 1978, retaliating against what was known as the government’s “dirty war,” referring to the period from 1943 – 1981 during which it was alleged to have used a secret police force to round up insurgents and detain and torture them in secret prisons. (1)   

 

On Friday evening, May 12, only hours before the fire erupted, police had located and detonated 16 explosives in four stores and three banks in the downtown historic area (2), not far from Astor and my uncle Enrique and aunt Meche Huesca’s home at 63 Venustiano Carranza Street.  

The police had not been successful, despite their best efforts. Somehow the bombs in two stores escaped detection by the authorities.  

 

The fact remains that at some time, presumably that Friday, there had been a flurry of activity in the Astor and Blanco department stores, and it had nothing to do with clearance sales.

 

Somewhere on the first and possibly second floors, one or more guerilla operatives of the People’s Union made their way through Astor and Blanco, a block away.  At Astor, they concealed explosive devices in various places throughout the store and set them to go off after midnight, several hours after closing.  According to investigative journalist Laura Castellanos,  this was “to avoid having victims” – a tenet held by some, but not all of the members of the People’s Union. (3)  

Whether or not the group had planned to cause human casualties, it would appear that they did intend to cause a significant amount of chaos in the downtown financial district.  This presumably would have strained the capabilities of the police and fire departments to the breaking point, possibly necessitating a national guard or military-type of support response.  Some later mused that the havoc might have made the nearby National Palace and federal government offices, just blocks away, more vulnerable to an attack. Thankfully, it was not so in the end.


Twenty minutes into Saturday, May 13 (4), several strong explosions ripped through the school supplies department at Astor, radiating quickly across the lower floors and swallowing up the mostly paper, plastic, and fabric merchandise in flames like matches in a tinderbox.  The blasts killed a night watchman at the store. (5) He would be the first of 58 casualties.

As the fireball traveled throughout the lower floors, it shot through a large passageway that connected the department store with the mezzanine of the La Galia building next door at 63 Venustiano Carranza.  Under an agreement between Astor and the owners of La Galia, the passageway had served as a delivery corridor for and service entrance to the department store.  Now it acted as a vacuum, sucking the fire from Astor in reverse delivery to La Galia’s mezzanine (6), effectively closing off any exit for its sole residents on the seventh floor and connecting the two buildings in a perilous trap.

 

About an hour later, another major blast would follow at the Blanco Department Store (7), barely a block away, at the corner of Venustiano Carranza Street and 5 de Febrero Avenue.  This explosion, detonated by one or more bombs in the clothing racks, also ignited a major fire in that store.  

Acts of violence take their toll ruthlessly, usually on the innocent, whether they are the intended targets or not.  

 


(1)   Castellanos, Laura.  México Armado 1943 – 1981.  Mexico City,  Ediciones Era, 2007. 
(2) “Grandes almacenes incendiados,” El País, Madrid, Spain, May 16, 1978. Web.           Accessed April 10, 2013.
(3)   Castellanos, Laura.  México Armado 1943 – 1981.
(4) “Incendios Trágicos,” Hispano-Americano, Mexico, D.F., May 22, 1978. Print.            Accessed April 10, 2013.
(5)  “At least 4 dead as stores burn in Mexico City,” Associated Press, Eugene Register-Guard, May 14, 1978.  Web.  Accessed March 25, 2013.
(6)   Huesca, Eduardo.  Personal interview.  April 7, 2013.
(7)   “Incendios Trágicos,” Hispano-Americano.

Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully

One thought to “The Astor Fire, Part 2: Explosions”

  1. What a heavy thought, Linda: "Acts of violence take their toll ruthlessly, usually on the innocent, whether they are the intended targets or not." Especially considering what we have just gone through, ourselves! There really are no victimless crimes. How terrifying for your mom and family to be trapped in such a situation. So glad to know the outcome was better than could have been hoped.

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