Mexican fuel pipeline explosion leaves at least 66 dead

President defends army despite failure to clear site before the devastating blast

Aftermath of the fuel explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico, Photograph: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

Aftermath of the fuel explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico, Photograph: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

 

At least 66 people were killed after a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in Mexico, authorities said on Saturday.

The latest death toll comes as Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast. Dozens of burned bodies lay in the charred field where the blast occurred on Friday evening by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the central state of Hidalgo in what was one of the worst incidents to hit Mexico’s troubled oil infrastructure in years.

Forensic experts inspected and photographed the remains while soldiers and other military personnel guarded the cordoned-off area that was littered with half-burned shoes, clothes and containers used by people to collect fuel.

At a news conference with Mr Lopez Obrador, Hidalgo State governor Omar Fayad said 66 people were killed and 76 people injured in the explosion, which happened as local residents tried to fill buckets and drums with fuel.

Mr Lopez Obrador launched a crackdown on fuel theft in late December 2018 and ordered pipelines to be closed temporarily to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Video on social media of people filling buckets from the pipeline during daylight hours in the presence of the armed forces. But Mr Lopez Obrador, who vowed to continue the crackdown on fuel theft, defended the army against questions about why soldiers failed to prevent the tragedy.

“We’re not going to fight fire with fire,” he said. “We think that people are good, honest, and if we’ve reached these extremes . . . it’s because they were abandoned.”

Backing comments made earlier by his minister for public security, the president said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the number of people seeking to benefit from free fuel at the pipeline site.

Resident survey the devastation following the explosion. Photograph: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg
Resident survey the devastation following the explosion. Photograph: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg
Mexican soldiers secure the area after the fuel pipe explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
Mexican soldiers secure the area after the fuel pipe explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

The priority, he said, was to eradicate the social problems and lack of opportunities that had prompted people to put their lives at risk to get at the fuel – a few liters of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

Tension mounts in wake of blast

Construction worker David Lozada (35) was looking for his missing brother, 34-year-old Jesus Manuel on Saturday morning.

“I came looking for him when the fire was still going,” he said. “Because of the heat of the blaze and the soldiers wouldn’t let us. His friends confirmed that he was around here.”

Mexico’s top federal prosecutor Alejandro Gertz said the pipeline was tapped deliberately, but that the investigation was complicated because everyone right at the blast site died.

Soon after the government said the blaze had been extinguished, TV footage showed tense exchanges between authorities guarding the site and residents over the death toll.

Mr Lopez Obrador said his decision to shut down pipelines to combat crime has greatly reduced theft. However, it sparked fears for the economy, as well as triggering fuel shortfalls in central Mexico, including Hidalgo. – Reuters