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At Least 41 Die in Ash Wednesday Church Stampede

February 14, 1991 GMT

CHALMA, Mexico (AP) _ At least 41 Ash Wednesday worshipers suffocated or were crushed to death when a tightly packed crowd began pushing and shoving in a church famed for a religious icon believed to have miraculous powers.

Thirteen of the victims were children. At least 21 people were hospitalized with injuries suffered in the panicked crush of about 3,500 people at the Sanctuary of Our Lord of Chalma, 40 miles south of Mexico City, officials said.

The confusion and stampede apparently started when street vendors inadvertently blocked a narrow alley leading to the church, according to a statement by the state of Mexico government in Toluca.

People coming in and out of the church became frantic at the congestion and began pushing and shoving, the statement said.

″There was an avalanche of people. We were leaving and those that were coming in squashed the people leaving,″ said Maria Velazquez, who lost her 9- year-old niece in the tragedy.

″Some people were trampled and others suffocated inside the church in the atrium,″ said state spokesman Carlos Mota.

Mota said authorities had trouble finding enough ambulances to carry the injured to hospitals.

Hours after the disaster, people continued to pour out of the church. A file of young men carried 40 empty coffins through the narrow streets to a school, where the bodies were laid out in a courtyard under blankets and shawls.

Identification tags scrawled on notebook paper were pinned on the bodies.

″I came on a bus. I will be going back with the hearse,″ said Juana Patina, 56, whose sister-in-law Perfecta Rojas, 40, was killed.

Gov. Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza immediately gave orders for a second street to be constructed to the hilltop sanctuary, which draws pilgrims from all over the nation who pray before an icon of the crucified Jesus.

Some believers say prayer before the icon can cure the sick and lead to other miracles.

Candida Arenillas, 51, said she visited the shrine from a village in neighboring Puebla state, with an older relative and an 11-year-old child. The older woman was killed in the crush, she said.

″I didn’t know who to protect - the child or the senora,″ she said.

″We were saved by a miracle - because we yelled to Our Lord of Chalma to save us.″

When Spanish priests arrived in Chalma in 1537, they found Indians worshiping the god Tezcatlipoca in a cave. A band of Roman Catholic hermits moved into the cave in 1623 and built a chapel nearby. Such usurpation of pagan rituals by the church was common in colonial Mexico.

Work on a larger sanctuary began in 1680. It has been rebuilt and renovated several times since.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which culminates with Easter celebrations.