MEXICO CITY — Forensic experts attempted to separate and count charred heaps of corpses in central Mexico on Saturday after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap.
Relatives of the dozens of deceased and injured, along with other onlookers, gathered around the scene of carnage.
Just a few feet from where the pipeline passed through an alfalfa field, the dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another in the moments after a geyser of gasoline shot into the air Friday.
The blaze started as people from the village of Tlahuelilpan collected spilling gasoline into buckets and garbage cans. The leak, located in the state of Hidalgo about 62 miles north of Mexico City, was from an illegal tap drilled by fuel thieves, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad announced Saturday that at least 66 people were dead, 76 were badly burned and another 85 remained missing.
Video footage of the incident showed dozens of people in an almost festive atmosphere gathered in a field where a duct had been breached. Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze.
Screaming people ran from the explosion, some themselves burning and waving their arms.
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On Saturday, several of the dead lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the flames; another few black-charred corpses seemed to embrace each other in death.
Lost shoes were scattered around the scorched field, as were plastic jugs and jerry cans that the victims had carried to gather spilling fuel.
"Ay, no, where is my son?" wailed Hugo Olvera Estrada, whose 13-year-old son, Hugo Olvera Bautista, was at the spot where the fire erupted. Wrapped in a blanket outside a clinic, the man had already gone to six local hospitals looking for his child.
After returning home from middle school yesterday, his father recounted, the boy went to join the crowd scooping up gasoline. Olvera Estrada believed he was influenced by older men from the town of about 20,000. "The older men brought him," he said.
The tragedy came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that have 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.
In a press conference Saturday, Lopez Obrador vowed to continue the fight against the $3 billion-per-year illegal fuel theft industry.
"We are going to eradicate that which not only causes material damages, it is not only what the nation loses by this illegal trade, this black market of fuel, but the risk, the danger, the loss of human lives," he said.
The duct carries fuel from the Gulf coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City. Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5:00 p.m. local time. Two hours later, the pipeline burst into flames.
Another pipeline was set ablaze in the neighboring state of Queretaro, but the Mexican army reported nobody was hurt. A charred vehicle at the scene suggested fuel theft may have been involved.
In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in a 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 six miles wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries.
His administration has also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. But there aren't enough trucks, and long lines at gas stations have plagued several states.
However, fuel theft gangs have been able to win the loyalty of whole neighborhoods, using free gas and getting local residents to act as lookouts and confront military patrols carrying out raids against the thefts.
It is unclear whether Friday's tragedy would turn the tide of opinion against the gangs in the impoverished villages that lie above the underground pipelines, as families gathered outside clinics waiting for news of their missing loved ones.
"I am calling on the entire population not to be accomplices to fuel theft," Fayad said. "What happened today in Tlahuelilpan must never happen again."