A petroleum pipeline in Hidalgo exploded last night after it had been illegally tapped to steal fuel, leaving 66 people dead and another 76 injured, authorities said.
The explosion occurred just before 7:00pm in a field in Tlahuelilpan, a municipality around 80 kilometers west of the state capital, Pachuca.
Video circulating on social media showed a huge fire spreading across the field after the explosion, presumably following the route of the perforated pipeline.
People who had been filling containers with fuel can be heard screaming and shouting as large flames shoot into the air.
At a press conference this morning alongside President López Obrador, Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad Meneses said that authorities were first informed about the pipeline tap at 4:30pm and the army arrived at the site an hour later and directed people to leave.
“Authorities tried to persuade people who were looting the pipeline [to move away] but the majority didn’t listen . . .” he said.
“The death toll is very sad for Hidalgo, which today is in mourning. Up to now there are 66 people who have been killed and 76 people are injured,” Fayad said.
Emergency services, police, the military and personnel from Pemex rushed to the scene of the explosion where they found dozens of burned bodies in the field.
The injured, who according to media reports included 73 men and three women, were taken to several different hospitals in Hidalgo and Mexico City by ambulance and five helicopters that were provided by the Mexico City government.
A list of the deceased and hospitalized will be published on the Hidalgo government website.
Fayad said that investigations to determine the exact cause of the explosion are continuing. The fire was controlled just before midnight.
The tragedy occurred as the federal government is cracking down on fuel theft by deploying the military and Federal Police to safeguard the nation’s petroleum pipelines, some of which have been closed.
The strategy has caused prolonged gasoline shortages in several states, including Hidalgo, causing long lines at gas stations and leaving motorists and business owners angry and frustrated.
When news of the illegal tap in Hidalgo spread late yesterday afternoon, hundreds of local residents rushed to the field in the community of San Primitivo where geysers of gasoline were shooting into the air.
Between 600 and 800 people arrived at the field, according to National Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, where they tried to fill all manner of different containers with fuel.
“There were a lot of people who approached [the perforation] with containers, there were women, children, teenagers,” a Hidalgo reporter who witnessed the explosion told the newspaper El Universal.
“People even approached ‘the fountain’ in pickup trucks to get the fuel. People started to play, to act the fool where the fuel was coming out. They were jumping, laughing and fooling around. They got wet and thought it was funny; a lot of people were getting wet with gasoline,” Joselyn Sánchez said.
She explained that the smell of gasoline in the air was so strong that many women were vomiting.
Sánchez said that after the explosion occurred, she saw people running away from the pipeline with their bodies engulfed in flames.
López Obrador visited the site of the explosion last night, where he lamented the tragedy but pledged to continue to fight against fuel theft.
“We will continue and strengthen the fight against the illegality and the oil theft,” he told reporters. “We will carry on until we eradicate this practice.”
There were 12,581 illegal taps detected on Mexico’s pipelines during the first 10 months of 2018, according to Pemex. Fuel theft costs Mexico billions of pesos a year.
Yesterday’s pipeline explosion is the deadliest in recent history but blasts caused by illegal taps are relatively common and have caused deaths in several states including Veracruz and Querétaro last year.
In 2010, an explosion of a pipeline in San Martín Texmelucan, Puebla, killed at least 27 people. According to officials, that blast was also caused by an illegal tap.