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Death toll reaches 79 after huge blast at Mexico pipeline ruptured by fuel thieves

Death toll reaches 79 after huge blast at Mexico pipeline ruptured by fuel thieves
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TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico — They were warned to stay away from the geyser of gasoline gushing from the illegally tapped pipeline in central Mexico, but Gerardo Perez says he and his son joined others in bypassing the soldiers. As they neared the spurting fuel he was overcome with foreboding.

Perez recalls telling his son: “Let’s go … this thing is going to explode.”

And it did, with a fireball that engulfed locals scooping up the spilling gasoline and underscored the dangers of an epidemic of fuel theft from pipelines that Mexico’s new president has vowed to fight.

By Sunday morning the death toll from Friday’s blaze had risen to 79, with another 81 hospitalized in serious condition, according to federal Health Minister Jorge Alcocer. Dozens more were missing.

Perez and his son escaped the flames. On Saturday, he returned to the scorched field in the town of Tlahuelilpan in Hidalgo state to look for missing friends. It was a fruitless task. Only a handful of the remains still had skin. Dozens were burned to the bone or to ash when the gusher of gasoline exploded.

Just a few feet from where the pipeline passed through an alfalfa field, the dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another as the geyser of gasoline turned to flames.

Several of the deceased lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the blast. A few corpses seemed to embrace each other in death. Lost shoes were scattered around a space the size of a soccer field. Closer to the explosion, forensic workers marked mounds of ash with numbers.

Let s go ... this thing is going to explode

On Friday, hundreds of people had gathered in an almost festive atmosphere in a field where the duct had been perforated by fuel thieves and gasoline spewed 20 feet into the air.

State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said the pipeline, which supplies much of central Mexico with fuel, had just reopened after being shut since Dec. 23 and that it had been breached 10 times over three months.

The tragedy came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had 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 altered distribution, both licit and illicit.

Firemen extinguish the smouldering fire over the bodies of burned victims at the scene of a massive blaze in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico, on January 19, 2019. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Lopez Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that steals about $3 billion per year in fuel.

“Mexico needs to end corruption,” Lopez Obrador said. “This is not negotiable.”

He said he would offer financial aid to communities along pipelines that have become somewhat dependent on income from fuel theft rings.

Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that locals say is deeply rooted in the poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. In some cases, locals support the fuel thieves.

Tlahuelilpan, population 20,000, is just 8 miles (13 kilometres) from Pemex’s Tula refinery. Pemex Chief Executive Octavio Romero said an estimated 10,000 barrels of premium gasoline were rushing through the pipeline with 20 kilograms of pressure when it was ruptured.

Locals on Saturday expressed both sympathy and consternation toward the president’s war on fuel gangs.

Arely Calva Martinez said the recent shortages at gas stations raised the temptation to salvage fuel from the gusher.
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