Fireworks shock

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
They know how to party in Arequipa. On May 1 each year, thousands take to the streets to mark the Feast of The Virgin with processions, candles and fireworks. And every August, the residents of Peru's second largest city celebrate the anniversary of its founding with a week-long fair. Once again, pyrotechnics are at the fore, with thunderous displays that draw lovers of spectacle from around the world.

On the evening of August 14, 1996, it seemed as if the whole world was in Arequipa to watch the show. Tourists crammed into every available space to see music and dance groups that had come from as far away as Israel. But above all, they were there to enjoy the fireworks that would light up the waters of the Chili River.

As always, a prime vantage point was the cobbled Grau Bridge, and it was here that the crowds were most densely packed as the display got under way.

With their eyes dazzled by the fire erupting all around them, few would have noticed the high tension power cables that crossed the river high above the ancient structure. And when a carelessly aimed rocket exploded into one of the cables and brought it down on to the bridge, the consequences must have seemed at first like part of the pyrotechnics. In fact what onlookers lining the river banks were witnessing was a disaster almost too horrible to contemplate.

For the exposed ends of the broken cable unleashed a 10,000 volt current into the crowd, electrocuting dozens in an instant and igniting a deadly panic. Many would later describe how spectators struck by the cable spontaneously burst into flames, while television footage of the aftermath would show dozens of motionless bodies strewn across the bridge, several still burning.

Some 35 people died on the Grau Bridge that evening, and another 42 were seriously injured. Yet the disaster seems to have done little to dampen Arequipa's taste for festivity. With three volcanoes for neighbours and a reputation for earthquakes, it is perhaps a city that has learned to live with danger.

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