At least 73 people died in an oil pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state of Mexico, about 100 km north of Mexico City, on Saturday after a massive fireball engulfed people scooping up fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured by thieves.
Forensic experts who scorched the field in central Mexico, where the illegal gasoline pipeline tap burst into flames, saw only a handful of the remains that had still some skin on their bodies. Dozens were burned to the bone or to ash when the gusher of gasoline exploded, killing at least 73 people, say reports.
The massive fireball that engulfed locals collecting the spilling gasoline in buckets, jugs and garbage cans, left many more badly burned as well.
By Saturday evening the death toll had risen to 73, according to Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad. Officials said at least another 74 were injured and dozens more were missing. Fifty-four bodies are yet to be identified.
Mexican authorities vowed on Saturday to continue the fight against a practice that steals about $3 billion per year in fuel.
The dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another as the gasoline sprout turned to flames and engulfed the area melting plastic cans and buckets filled with the fuel.
On Friday, hundreds of people had gathered in an almost festive atmosphere in a field where fuel thieves had perforated the gasoline pipeline and gasoline spewed 20 feet into the air.
State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) said the pipeline, which supplies the fuel to much of central Mexico, had just reopened after being shut since 23 December and that it had been breached 10 times over three months.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that have drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to widespread fuel shortages at gas stations throughout the country as Pemex deviates distribution, both licit and illicit.
Tlahuelilpan, with a population of 20,000, is just 13 km from Pemex’s Tula refinery. The pipilene carried an estimated 10,000 barrels of premium gasoline with 20 kilograms of pressure when it was ruptured.
On Saturday, Mexican Defence Secretary Luis Cresencio said there were 50 soldiers stationed every 12 miles along the pipeline, and that they patrol 24 hours a day. But the soldiers have been ordered not to engage with fuel thieves out of fear that an escalation could result in more shootings of unarmed civilians or more soldiers being beaten by a mob.
Reports said military personnel had arrived on the scene soon after the pipeline started spewing fuel on Friday. However, hundreds of civilians continued to throng the area to fill containers with gasoline from a gusher shooting six meters into the air.
A second pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro, but there were no casualties in the fire.
In December 2010, oil thieves had caused a pipeline explosion in central Mexico, near the capital, killing 28 people, including 13 children.