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Oil Firm Says They Were Stealing Fuel. Then, a Giant Fireball

Pipeline explosion kills 66, injures dozens in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 19, 2019 5:29 AM CST
In this image, soldiers guard the area by an oil pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, on Friday.   (Secretary of National Defense via AP)

(Newser) – A massive fireball that engulfed people scooping up fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured by thieves in central Mexico killed 66 people and left 85 others missing in what was a chronicle of a tragedy foretold. It 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, an average of about 42 per day. The AP reports the leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 62 miles north of Mexico City, per state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5:00pm local time Friday. Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad said the blast occurred at the duct that carries fuel—apparently gasoline—from the Gulf Coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City.

Video showed dozens of residents as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap. Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the flames, some burning and waving their arms. Pemex attributed the blaze to "the manipulation of an illegal tap." "I greatly lament the grave situation Tlahuelilpan is suffering because of the explosion of the duct," Lopez Obrador tweeted. He called on all branches of government to assist the victims. The blast will further focus attention on his fight against the $3 billion per year illegal fuel theft industry. He faces resistance in his battle: Gangs have been able to win the loyalty of whole neighborhoods, using free gas and getting locals to act as lookouts and confront military patrols carrying out raids. It's unclear whether Friday's tragedy will turn the tide of opinion against the gangs in the impoverished villages that lie above the underground pipelines.

(Read more Mexico stories.)

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