TLAHUELILPAN (Reuters) – At least 73 people were killed after a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast.
Forensic experts filled body bags with charred human remains in the field where the explosion occurred on Friday evening by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo, in one of the deadliest incidents to hit Mexico’s troubled oil infrastructure in years.
One witness described how an almost festive atmos-phere among hundreds of local residents filling containers with spilled fuel turned to horror as the blast scattered the crowd in all directions, incinerating clothing and inflicting severe burns.
A number of people at the scene said that local shortages in gasoline supply since Mr Obrador launched a drive to stamp out fuel theft had encouraged the rush to the gushing pipeline.
“Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car, there isn’t any in the gas stations,” said farmer Isaias Garcia, 50.
To root out the theft, Mr Obrador in late December ordered pipelines to be closed. But that led to shortages in central Mexico, including Hidalgo, where local media this week said more than half of the gas stations were at times shut.
Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad said 73 people were killed and 74 people injured in the explosion, which happened as residents scrambled to get buckets and drums to a gush at the pipeline that authorities said rose up to 23 feet high.
Hidalgo Attorney General Raul Arroyo said 54 bodies were so badly burned that they could take a long time to identify.
The crackdown on fuel theft has become a litmus test of Mr Obrador’s drive to tackle corruption in Mexico – and to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
Video on social media showed people filling buckets from the pipeline during daylight hours in the presence of the armed forces before the blast.
In the aftermath, soldiers and other military personnel guarded the cordoned-off area that was littered with half-burned shoes, clothes and containers.
Mr Obrador said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the large number of people seeking to make off with a trove of free fuel – a few liters of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.
Pemex’s Chief Executive Octavio Romero told reporters that there had been 10 illegal fuel taps in the same municipality in the last three months alone. Neither he nor the president said exactly when the valves to the pipeline were closed.
Grief-stricken family members blocked access to the field for over half an hour, saying they would not let funeral service vehicles pass until they were told where the dead were being taken.