CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Mexican government officials and event organizers Monday blamed the driver of a monster truck for losing control and plowing into a crowd of spectators, killing eight and injuring 79. Motor-sports experts, however, pointed at the organizers, saying the setup of the state-sponsored show was blatantly deficient and life-threatening.
Organizers of the “Extreme Aeroshow” said hundreds of families had gathered without permission in what was supposed to be the pit area at one end of a makeshift arena in a park in Chihuahua, capital of the border state of Chihuahua.
The pit area was unprotected by any barrier and sat feet from where the monster truck known as “Big Show” was crushing a pair of old cars, leaping into the air and rolling over their hoods and roofs. Video of the accident shows the truck coming down hard off the second car, bouncing and then speeding out of control into the crowd.
One organizer said the spectators hadn’t been moved out of the pit zone before the show because “crowd management is very difficult.”
The safety situation was “about as bad as it could get,” said Marty Garza, spokesman for the Monster Truck Racing Association, the primary safety organization for the industry in the United States.
“There was some pretty blatant disregard for the safety of spectators,” he said. “There is no excuse for why the spectators were situated as they were, period.”
It was the second disaster in less than a month to focus attention on Mexico’s patchy and loosely enforced system of consumer safety. Experts widely blamed much of the billions of dollars’ worth of damage from Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid, which killed 157 people and displaced thousands, on the government’s failure to prevent home construction in floodplains and enforce building standards for highways and bridges.
State prosecutor Jorge Enrique Gonzalez Nicolas told reporters Monday that he was investigating whether the city of Chihuahua’s civil protection agency or the air show organizers had been criminally negligent by ignoring international standards for monster truck shows. He said he might try to bring in international experts as consultants.
Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte and organizers of the weekend event sought to pin responsibility on the driver, saying he should only have driven in one direction over the cars, away from the pit area.
“He turned and came back in the wrong direction, came back to do a jump, and that’s unfortunately where this accident happened,” Duarte told Milenio Television on Monday.
Duarte said that the driver reported drinking a couple of sips of beer, but that tests found there wasn’t enough alcohol in his blood to be considered intoxicated. He said the driver apparently hit his head and lost consciousness after crushing the parked cars, explaining why the truck continued to accelerate even after it hit the crowd Saturday afternoon.
Veteran monster truck show organizers said spectators should never have been standing that close to the arena floor unprotected, regardless of the trajectory of the truck.
Properly organized shows take place in an arena with a safety zone separating spectators from the trucks, and the vehicles are equipped with remote-control switches that can shut down a truck the moment something appears to be going wrong, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, whose Monster Jam is the world’s largest touring monster truck show. That show appears in dozens of stadiums around the world each year, including in Mexico.
“The setup at that event is not something we would ever, ever permit at one of our shows,” said Payne, who saw video of the Chihuahua accident.
Jorge Cuesta, president of the group that organized the event, said it wasn’t possible to prevent families from gathering in the pit area.
“Crowd management is very difficult,” he told reporters. “I was there and this is a tragedy that couldn’t have been avoided.”
Payne said his firm seals off the first rows in arenas, often several dozen of them. If any spectators move into that area, “the show stops,” he said. “We don’t even let people put jackets on it.”
A dozen people remained in intensive care Monday, including Mague Flores Dominquez, whose ribs were broken and lung punctured when the truck ran over her, and her 11-year-old daughter, who had broken bones in her legs and back.
“I haven’t been able to calm myself down,” said Daniel Dominguez, the husband and father.
___ Associated Press writer Ricardo Chavez reported this story in Ciudad Juarez and Michael Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. AP writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein