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Firefighters and a cloud of gas yesterday in Puebla. Firefighters and a cloud of gas yesterday in Puebla.

High risk of explosion due to gas leak created Puebla’s biggest emergency ever

Unreported pipeline taps worry Civil Protection officials for the danger they represent

The gas leak in Puebla yesterday that forced the evacuation of 1,800 families was the first time the city has faced such a large emergency, according to the municipal Civil Protection director.

“. . . There was a very high risk [of explosion] . . .” said Gustavo Ariza Salvatori, adding that the emergency response followed established protocols and was both quick and proportionate to the danger posed.

At 3:00am yesterday, security authorities began receiving reports that gas was leaking from a Pemex pipeline in the neighborhood of Villa Frontera, around six kilometers north of the state capital’s historic center.

The leak is believed to have been the result of an illegal tap on the duct, a common practice of fuel thieves known as huachicoleros.

With the city still under the cover of darkness, municipal police broke the pre-dawn quiet by using their patrol car loudspeakers to order residents in Villa Frontera and other nearby neighborhoods to get out of bed and evacuate their homes.

Soldiers and officers of the Federal Police’s National Gendarmerie division also assisted in the evacuation efforts.

A cloud of gas had already begun accumulating above the affected area and threatened to explode at any moment.

Some residents were quicker to leave than others but eventually seven neighborhoods in the north of Puebla were left deserted.

All residents left on foot, many clutching their children, pets and important documents, because Pemex prohibited the use of cars out of fear that starting an engine could trigger an explosion.

In the end there was no explosion but residents can consider themselves fortunate to have been alerted. Due to the culture surrounding pipeline theft many pipeline perforations go unreported, said Civil Protection’s Ariza Salvatori.

“The most worrying thing is that people don’t make reports. There are more than 25 houses that adjoin the lot where the illegal tap occurred. It shouldn’t be possible that [in front of] more than 25 families, [fuel thieves] open up pipelines to steal gas,” he said.

State Civil Protection officials said just before 9:00am that Pemex personnel had successfully sealed the leak but it was almost midday, when the gas cloud had dissipated due to wind and the efforts of firefighters to suffocate it, that residents were allowed to return to their homes.

In addition to the evacuation of residents, classes were suspended in 95 schools, 180 patients were evacuated from a hospital and the Central de Abasto market was cleared of occupants.

More than 1,000 companies and small businesses were forced to shut their doors for at least part of the day.

Puebla Governor José Antonio Gali Fayad said that authorities have used security camera footage to identify vehicles believed to have been used by the huachicoleros responsible for the illegal tap.

Tools left next to the punctured pipeline could provide further clues to authorities.

Theft of liquefied petroleum gas is a growing problem in Mexico.

An industry group estimates that the crime has cost Pemex and private gas suppliers as much as 8 billion pesos (US $415.9 million) in lost revenue this year.

Source: El Universal (sp) Milenio (sp)

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