MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – At least 20 people were killed and 54 were injured on Friday when a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico as dozens of people tried to fill up containers, state and federal authorities said.
Military personnel watch as flames engulf an area after a ruptured fuel pipeline exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo, Mexico, near the Tula refinery of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), January 18, 2019 in this handout photo provided by the National Defence Secretary (SEDENA). National Defence Secretary/Handout via REUTERS
Mexican television footage showed flames leaping into the night sky in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City, as people shouted and cried for help.
“The preliminary report I’ve been passed is very serious, they’re telling me 20 people have died, charred,” Hidalgo’s Governor Omar Fayad told Mexican television.
Images published on broadcaster Televisa showed people with severe burns from the blast as the government sent in ambulances and doctors to treat the victims.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has launched a major crackdown on rampant fuel theft, which the government said cost the country more than $3 billion last year.
Governor Fayad said there were 71 people injured in the blast, one of the worst in recent history in a country that has suffered hundreds of illegal ruptures to its network of oil and gas pipelines.
“I urge the entire population not to be complicit in fuel theft,” Fayad said on Twitter. “Apart from being illegal, it puts your life and those of your families at risk.”
The fire had yet to be extinguished, he said.
The ruptured pipeline was near the Tula refinery of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), which in a statement blamed the incident on an illegal tap.
Separate television footage showed the pipeline gushing a fountain of fuel earlier in the day and dozens of people at the site trying to fill buckets and plastic containers.
Lopez Obrador expressed his concern on Twitter, and said he wanted “the entire government” to help people at the scene.
Separately, Pemex said on Friday evening it was also dealing with a separate pipeline rupture by suspected fuel thieves in San Juan del Rio in the neighboring state of Queretaro. There was no danger to the population, the firm added.
The president’s crackdown on theft has significant public backing, though his decision to turn off pipelines to thwart the thieves disrupted fuel supply in central Mexico and raised concern that the shortages could damage the economy.
Some users of social media responded to the explosion with anger, saying the fuel thieves only had themselves to blame.
Reporting by Dave Graham and Noe Torres; Editing by Sandra Maler and Stephen Coates