Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo — Jubilation turned to horror when a massive fireball engulfed townsfolk scooping up fuel gushing from a ruptured pipeline on Friday.
The pipeline had been tapped by thieves in central Mexico. The fireball killed 21 people and badly burned 71 others.
It came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that 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.
On Twitter, Lopez Obrador wrote, in Spanish: “I am very sorry for the serious situation in Tlahuelilpan due to the explosion of a pipeline. I am in Aguascalientes and, since the director of Pemex and the Secretary of Defense informed me, I gave instructions so that the fire is controlled and the victims are taken care of.”
The leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 62 miles/100 kilometers north of Mexico City, according to Pemex.
Video footage showed dozens of residents in an almost festive atmosphere as whole families gathered in a field as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap.
Some villagers were covered in gasoline as it spewed into the air.
Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the flames, some themselves burning and waving their arms.
Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad said 21 people were killed immediately and 71 suffered burns in the blast at the duct that carries fuel — apparently gasoline — from the Gulf coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City.
Pemex attributed the blaze to “the manipulation of an illegal tap.”
Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5 p.m.
“There was a report that residents were on the scene trying to obtain fuel,” according to a police report. Two hours later, the pipeline burst into flames.
And another pipeline burst into flames in the neighboring state of Queretaro on Friday, because of another illegal tap. Pemex said the fire near the city of San Juan del Rio was “in an unpopulated area and there is no risk to human beings.”
The tragedy mirrors another, in December 2010, when authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children.
That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles (10 kilometers) wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
The blast will further focus attention on Lopez Obrador’s fight against the $3 billion per-year illegal fuel theft industry.
He launched the offensive after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. There aren’t enough trucks, however, and long lines at gas stations have plagued several states.
But Lopez Obrador faces resistance in his battle against fuel theft. Gangs have been able to win the loyalty of whole neighborhoods, using free gasoline and getting locals to act as lookouts and confront military patrols carrying out raids against the thefts.
It is unclear whether Friday’s tragedy will turn the tide of opinion against the gangs in the impoverished villages that lie above the underground pipelines.
“I am calling on the entire population not to be accomplices to fuel theft,” Fayad wrote. “What happened today in Tlahuelilpan must never happen again.”
With information from the Associated Press