Footage of the collapse quickly went viral on social media. It showed dozens of people teasing and playing with a wounded bull during a popular event known as corraleja. Suddenly, three levels of stands gave way, trapping hundreds of men, women and children underneath. As people screamed, some jumped out of their seats and rushed to help, trying to heave wood and other debris aside.
Hector Ortiz, 64, could not believe the scene. A woman next to him shouted “That balcony is about to fall down!” and he watched eight sections begin to cave in one after another, like dominoes.
“After the first balcony collapsed, it pulled the next one, and so on, and so on,” Ortiz told The Washington Post. “It was the gate the bulls go through that stopped the collapse. Otherwise we’d be talking about a much bigger tragedy.”
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Every year, the mayor’s office and private parties in El Espinal organize events to celebrate the Feast of Saint Peter on June 29. The bullring is erected for a spectacle that originated on the Caribbean coast when Colombia was a Spanish colony. Unlike in traditional Spanish bullfighting, the bulls are not ordinarily killed in a corraleja, and spectators are invited to run around with the animal still in the ring.
In towns such as El Espinal, the event has evolved to become a popular show.
Its bullring was built with gadua bamboo, and the multiple levels were packed with spectators. “A gadua bamboo structure is pretty unstable,” said Luis Fernando Velez, head of the regional civil defense agency. “Organizers should have foreseen this could happen.”
Velez said 50 volunteers from the civil defense were working to transfer the most serious cases of nearly 300 injured spectators from the bullring to the town’s one hospital. Firefighters and police also helped. The local health system sent a “red alert” to the community.
On Twitter, Colombia President Iván Duque expressed concern for the victims and called for a prompt investigation.
A 14-month-old baby was among the dead. More than a dozen children were injured, and others were missing, having been beside their parents at the bullring when the structure gave way, Velez said. Each of the stands involved held an estimated 800 people, according to Mayor Juan Carlos Tamayo Salas.
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The incident recalled a similar corralejas disaster in the Caribbean town of Sincelejo. Over 500 people died and more than 2,000 were wounded in 1980 when the makeshift stands there collapsed.
“This had already happened before in Sincelejo,” tweeted President-elect Gustavo Petro, who will take office in August. “I request local authorities to refrain from authorizing more spectacles with the death of persons or animals.”
Petro sparked outrage as mayor of Bogotá when he banned bullfighting. On Sunday he seemed ready to wage the same battle nationally.
Having witnessed the disaster Sunday, Ortiz said: “I think this is the end for corralejas in El Espinal.”