CARACAS/MEXICO CITY – A pipeline explosion north of Mexico City that killed at least 73 people has confronted President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with the biggest crisis since he took office pledging to crack down on graft and fuel theft.
Petroleos Mexicanos said its specialists and local officials were working to deal with a fire caused by the illegal tap on the gasoline line in Tlahuelilpan, part of a fuel-theft industry valued at an estimated $3.5 billion. Pipelines were illegally siphoned an average of 41 times a day during the first 10 months of 2018, a 45 percent increase from last year, according to Pemex.
Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, said he won’t be stymied in his offensive against fuel-theft gangs. His plan, which involves increasing surveillance along pipelines and more shipments by tanker trucks, led to gas shortages at filling stations across central Mexico.
“This is all very painful, but it teaches a lesson,” Lopez Obrador told reporters on Saturday. “Yesterday, it happened in Hidalgo, but this is a constant and permanent risk.”
Lopez Obrador said he was canceling appointments to attend to the tragedy and planned to visit towns around the blast. He said he plans to increase shipments of tanker trucks and financial aid to areas affected by fuel shortages.
The latest death toll was confirmed by Omar Fayad, governor of Hidalgo, the Associated Press reported, adding at least another 85 were injured and dozens more were missing.
A presidential spokesman, Jesus Ramirez, said in an interview that most pipelines had been reopened and would only be closed if illegal taps were detected.
Lopez Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast. He said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the large number of people seeking to make off with a trove of free fuel — a few liters of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.
Blaming previous governments for neglecting the population, he said the priority is to eradicate the social problems and lack of opportunities that had made people risk their lives. He rejected suggestions the incident was linked to his policy.
Still, Lopez Obrador had vowed to tighten security in sensitive sections of the oil infrastructure, and the ruptured pipeline was not far from a major oil refinery.
Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval, who flanked the president at the news conference in the capital, said between 600 and 800 people had gathered around the tap when the explosion occurred. Video showed large, billowing flames spewing from pipeline late into Friday evening.
“We won’t fight fire with fire,” Lopez Obrador said “People are good. If they do this it’s because they were abandoned.”
One witness described how an almost festive atmosphere among hundreds of local residents filling containers with spilled fuel turned to horror as the blast scattered the crowd in all directions, incinerating clothing and inflicting severe burns.
A number of people at the scene said local gasoline shortages since Lopez Obrador launched the drive to stamp out fuel theft had encouraged the rush to the gushing pipeline.
“Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car, there isn’t any in the gas stations,” said farmer Isaias Garcia, 50. Garcia was at the site with two neighbors, but waited in the car some distance away.
“Some people came out burning and screaming,” he added.
Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad said 73 people were killed and 74 people injured in the explosion, which happened as residents scrambled to get buckets and drums to a gush at the pipeline that authorities said rose up to 23 feet (7 meters) high.
Fayad said the condition of many of the injured was deteriorating, and that some had burns on much of their body. Some of the most badly injured minors could be transported to Galveston, Texas, for medical attention, he added.
Hidalgo Attorney General Raul Arroyo said 54 bodies were so badly burned that they could take a long time to identify.
More than 100 people gathered at a local cultural center on Saturday afternoon, hoping to get information about loved ones who disappeared. Officials posted information about DNA tests for identification and a list of people taken to hospital.
Pemex’s Chief Executive Octavio Romero told reporters that there had been 10 illegal fuel taps in the same municipality in the past three months alone. Neither he nor the president said exactly when the valves to the pipeline were closed.
Relatives of victims stood huddled together, some of them crying, after the massive blast. Much of the rush to siphon off fuel and the chaos of the explosion were captured on mobile phones and began quickly circulating on social media.