The images are harrowing. During a bullfighting spectacle in Colombia, grandstands suddenly give way and people fall. There are dead and many injured. How could this happen?

It was supposed to be a boisterous celebration, but ended in disaster: at least four people died when part of the stands of a bullring in Colombia collapsed.

About 300 visitors were injured, 30 of them seriously, said the governor of the Tolima department, Ricardo Orozco, on the radio on Sunday evening. The dead are two women, a man and a 14-month-old child.

“Could have been a lot worse”

“Given the extent of what can be seen on the videos, the tragedy could have been much worse,” he told RCN. The clips on social media show how on one side of the arena in the city of El Espinal, a good 150 kilometers southwest of the capital Bogotá, the wooden grandstands occupied by hundreds of spectators collapse and tip forward into the arena. The cause was initially unclear. “A total of eight out of 44 stands in our bullring collapsed, each with about 100 people,” said Mayor Juan Carlos Tamayo.

It happened around midday on Sunday, just as several young men had surrounded the bull and were trying to tease him with flags and T-shirts. About 800 spectators sat on the collapsed portion of the structure, Orozco said. According to a report in the newspaper “El Tiempo”, a bull that fled the arena spread panic in the streets of the city of around 75,000 inhabitants after the incident. The governor called on mayors in the region to cancel similar festivals.

In El Espinal, for the traditional Peter and Paul festival, a «Corraleja» took place, a bullfighting event typical of Colombia, in which riders and daring runners challenge the bull on the sandy square. The spectacle, which has been criticized by animal rights activists, has the character of a folk festival, and it is not uncommon for people from the audience to run into the circle. There are always injuries.

The multi-storey arenas are often built specifically for these events as part of the festivals honoring the local patron saint, using wood and guadua, a local species of bamboo. The «Corralejas» have their origins in the Spanish colonial era, when cattle were herded together on large haciendas.

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His elected successor, Gustavo Petro, wrote that he was asking the country’s local governments to stop authorizing events where people or animals were killed. He also recalled a similar tragedy: In 1980, an overcrowded grandstand collapsed in the bullring in Sincelejo, the largest in Colombia. At least 300 people died.

El Espinal Mayor Tamayo regretted the tragedy, but defended the tradition of the “Corraleja” festivals in his city. “It’s been around for 141 years, and this structure is always used,” he told Caracol Radio. The wooden grandstands would be built by skilled carpenters known as “palqueros” who learned the trade from their fathers. The fact that children also attended the spectacle is part of it: “As with all festivals, it is about the whole people being able to enjoy it.”

The Attorney General’s Office initiated disciplinary proceedings against the mayor of Espinal. Despite the request, he had not submitted an emergency plan for the event, the authority said.