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Mexico pipeline blast kills at least 85

21 January 2019

Mexican Health Minister Jorge Alcocer told a news conference on January 20 that the number of fatalities from a gasoline pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo province, had risen to at least 85. The massive blast late on January 18 caused a fireball which engulfed hundreds of people scooping fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured allegedly by thieves.

Pemex pipeline - Image: Shutterstock
Pemex pipeline - Image: Shutterstock

The incident came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an estimated 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018.

Crowds of townspeople are often involved, either aiding thieves or collecting spilled fuel in primitive containers.

Fires caused by tapping have occurred before, but not with death toll of this incident, which came as people collected the spilled liquid in buckets, plastic jugs and cans in Tlahuelilpan, a small town about 100km north of Mexico City.

Video footage showed dozens of local residents gathered in a field as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap, followed by massive flames against a night sky and screaming people running from the flames.

Local media said residents ignored soldiers' warnings to stay clear of the geyser of gasoline that later exploded.

Another pipeline burst into flames in the neighbouring state of Queretaro on the same day because of another illegal tap but 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".

Omar Fayad, governor of the State of Hidalgo, said some of the many injured are minors who would receive treatment at a children's hospital in Galveston, Texas.

Alejandro Gertz Manero, general prosecutor of Mexico, said that the investigation had just started but that a "preliminary belief" was that static electricity from the clothing of people around the pipeline may have caused the blast.

He noted a large number of people were around the pipeline, some of whom were wearing clothes made with synthetic fibres that could "generate electric reactions."

Residents in the immediate vicinity of the pipeline, which runs from the cities of Tuxpan to Tula, have been evacuated, pipeline owner Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) said.

President Obrador, who visited Tlahuelilpan, said pipelines would be monitored to fight fuel theft. He said his administration was working to acquire fuel tankers to increase fuel supply following the closure of other pipelines that had been subjected to continuous fuel theft.

The pipeline closures have caused gas stations in several Mexican states and the country's capital to run dry.

Pemex said a new gas distribution system would have long-term benefits that outweighed any short-term cost. The company said the explosion would not affect gasoline distribution in Mexico City.

Authorities have blamed fuel theft for previous explosions in Mexico. In 2010, a pipeline blew up in the state of Puebla, leaving 28 people dead and scores injured.

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