At least 73 people were killed after a pipeline, ruptured by suspected fuel thieves, exploded in central Mexico, authorities said on Jan. 19, as President Andres Manuel López Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast.
Forensic experts filled body bags in the field where the explosion occurred on the evening of Jan. 18 by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo. It was one of the deadliest incidents to hit Mexico’s troubled oil infrastructure in years.
One witness described how an almost festive atmosphere 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 told Reuters that local shortages in gasoline supply since López 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. Garcia was at the site with two neighbors but waited in the car some distance away.
“Some people came out burning and screaming,” he added.
To root out theft, López 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.
In an interview with local television, Hidalgo State Governor Omar Fayad said 71 people were killed and 76 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.
The crackdown on fuel theft has become a litmus test of López Obrador’s drive to tackle corruption in Mexico—and 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.
But López Obrador, who vowed to continue the crackdown on theft, defended the army in the face of questions about why soldiers failed to prevent the tragedy.
“We’re not going to fight fire with fire,” the veteran leftist said. “We think that people are good, honest, and if we’ve reached these extremes … it’s because they were abandoned.”
In the aftermath, soldiers and other military personnel guarded the cordoned-off area.
Hundreds gathered at a local cultural center on the afternoon of Jan. 19, hoping to get information about loved ones who disappeared after the explosion. Officials had posted information about DNA tests for identification, and a list of people who had been taken to hospitals.
‘Like a Party’
López 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.
Blaming previous governments for neglecting the population, he said the priority was to eradicate the social problems and lack of opportunities that had made people risk their lives. He rejected suggestions the incident was linked to his policy.
Still, López Obrador had vowed to tighten security in sensitive sections of the oil infrastructure, and the ruptured pipeline was only a few miles away from a major oil refinery.
Pemex 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.
Relatives of victims stood huddled together, some of them crying, after the massive blast. Much of the rush to siphon off fuel and the chaos of the explosion was captured on mobile phones and began quickly circulating on social media.
Mexican media published graphic pictures of victims from the blast site.
Local journalist Veronica Jimenez, 46, arrived at the scene before the explosion where she said there were more than 300 people with containers to collect fuel.
“I saw families: mother, father, children,” she told Reuters. “It was like a party … for a moment you could even hear how happy people were.”
When the blast hit, people ran in different directions, pleading for help, some burned and without clothing, she said.
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.
López Obrador has said his decision to close pipelines has greatly reduced fuel theft, but the death toll has raised questions about potential unintended consequences.
“There was a gasoline shortage, people one way or another wanted to be able to move around,” said local farmer Ernesto Sierra, 44. “Some even came with their bean pots.”
By Anthony Esposito