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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Multiple rows of crowded bleachers at an improvised bullring collapsed during a bullfight in central Colombia on Sunday, leaving up to five dead and hundreds injured – numbers that could increase in the coming hours – as terrified spectators were trapped in the rubble .
The tragedy happened in El Espinal, a small town about 150 kilometers southwest of Bogotá.
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 called Corraleja. Suddenly, three tiers of grandstands gave way, trapping hundreds of men, women and children underneath. As people screamed, some jumped out of their seats and rushed to help while trying to clear away wood and other debris.
Hector Ortiz, 64, couldn’t believe the scene. A woman next to him shouted, “The balcony is about to collapse!” and he watched as eight sections, one after the other, began to collapse like dominoes.
“After the first balcony collapsed, he pulled down the next one and so on and so on,” Ortiz told the Washington Post. “It was the gate that the cops go through that prevented the collapse. Otherwise we would be talking about a much greater tragedy.”
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Every year the mayor’s office and private parties organize events in El Espinal to celebrate the feast of Saint Peter on June 29th. The bullring is being built for a spectacle that originated on the Caribbean coast when Colombia was a Spanish colony. Unlike traditional Spanish bullfights, the bulls are not usually killed in a corraleja, and spectators are invited to walk around the ring with the animal.
In towns like El Espinal, the event has become a popular show.
The bullring was built from Gadua bamboo and the multiple levels were packed with spectators. “A Gadua bamboo structure is quite unstable,” said Luis Fernando Velez, head of the regional civil protection agency. “The organizers should have foreseen that this could happen.”
Velez said 50 civil defense volunteers were working to move the most serious cases of nearly 300 injured spectators from the bullring to the city’s only hospital. The fire brigade and police also helped. The local health system sent a “red alert” to the community.
On Twitter, Colombian President Iván Duque expressed his concern for the victims and called for an immediate investigation.
A 14-month-old baby was among the dead. More than a dozen children were injured and others went missing after being in the bullring alongside their parents when the structure gave way, Velez said. Each of the booths involved held an estimated 800 people, according to Mayor Juan Carlos Tamayo Salas.
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The incident was reminiscent of a similar Corralejas disaster in the Caribbean city of Sincelejo. Over 500 people died and more than 2,000 were injured when the makeshift grandstands collapsed there in 1980.
“It had happened before in Sincelejo,” tweeted President-elect Gustavo Petro, who will take office in August. “I urge local authorities to refrain from allowing more spectacles involving the death of people or animals.”
Petro caused outrage as mayor of Bogotá when he banned bullfighting. On Sunday, he seemed poised to fight the same fight nationally.
Witnessing Sunday’s disaster, Ortiz said: “I think this is the end for the Corralejas in El Espinal.”