Death toll reaches 73 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (AP) – 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 Saturday evening the death toll from Friday’s blaze had risen to 73, with another 74 people injured and 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.

Forensic experts work at the area where an oil pipeline exploded in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico. – AFP

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.

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 December 23 last year 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 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.

Lopez Obrador vowed on Saturday to continue the fight against a practice that steals about USD3 billion per year in fuel.

He said the attorney general’s office will investigate whether the explosion was intentional – caused by an individual or group – or whether the fireball occurred due to the inherent risk of clandestine fuel extraction.

He called on townspeople to give testimony not only about last Friday’s events in Hidalgo, but about the entire black-market chain of fuel theft.

“I believe in the people, I trust in the people, and I know that with these painful, regrettable lessons, the people will also distance themselves from these practices,” he said.

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.