Dozens killed as oil pipeline explodes in Mexico's Tlahuelilpan

Health minister says death toll has risen to at least 85, with officials blaming incident on gangs of oil thieves.

    Officials said locals were scrambling to steal some of the leaking oil when at least 20 of them were burned to death [AFP]
    Officials said locals were scrambling to steal some of the leaking oil when at least 20 of them were burned to death [AFP]

    The number of people who died from a gasoline pipeline explosion in central Mexico has risen to at least 85, according to the country's health minister.

    Jorge Alcocer told a news conference on Sunday that an additional 58 people were hospitalised following the massive blast in Hidalgo state's Tlahuelilpan district late on Friday, when a fireball engulfed hundreds of people scooping up fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured allegedly by thieves,

    The incident came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018.

    Crowds of townspeople are often involved, either aiding thieves or collecting spilled fuel in primitive containers.

    Fires caused by tapping have occurred before, but seldom with the scale and horrifying death toll of Friday's fire in Hidalgo, which came as people collected the spilled liquid in buckets, plastic jugs and rubbish cans.

    The leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in Tlahuelilpan, a small town about 100km north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

    'Illegal tap'

    Video footage showed dozens of residents in an almost festive atmosphere as whole families gathered in a field as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap.

    The footage, accessed by The Associated Press news agency, then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the flames, some themselves burning and waving their arms.

    A local of Mexico's Hidalgo state said civilians ignored soldiers' warnings to stay clear of a geyser of gasoline that later exploded.

    Gerardo Perez Gutierrez said: "We're stubborn."

    Perez said he returned Saturday to the scorched field where the massive fireball erupted at the illegal pipeline tap.

    Pemex attributed the blaze to "the manipulation of an illegal tap".

    Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5pm local time (11:00 GMT).

    Another pipeline burst into flames in the neighbouring state of Queretaro on Friday, because of another illegal tap but Pemex said the fire near the city of San Juan del Rio was "in an unpopulated area and there is no risk to human beings".

    In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in central Mexico near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children.

    That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area 10km wide in San Martin Texmelucan.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies