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TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico — The death toll from Friday's ghastly pipeline explosion in central Mexico has risen to 85, Mexican Health Minister Jorge Alcocer Valera said Sunday night. Fifty-eight other people were in hospitals, and dozens more remained missing.
The state and federal governments said they were covering medical and funeral costs. A minor with burns has been transferred to Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, they said.
The victims were consumed by flames Friday night as they tried to cart off gasoline spurting out of a punctured pipeline that belongs to the state-run oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
People in the town say the section of pipeline that gushed fuel has been a habitual gathering site for thieves, repeatedly damaged and patched like a trusty pair of jeans.
"It was the popular tap," said Enrique Cerron, 22, who lives near the field. "You could pass by at 11 or 12 in the morning and see people filling up here."
On Friday — amid countrywide fuel shortages at gas stations as the government tries to stem widespread fuel theft — this particular section of pipeline had come back into service after having been offline for nearly four weeks when somebody punctured the line again. Word quickly spread through the community of 20,000 people that gas was flowing. Come one, come all.
Hundreds showed up at the spigot, carrying plastic jugs and covering their faces with bandanas. A few threw rocks and swung sticks at soldiers who tried to shoo them away. Some fuel collectors brought their children along.
Tlahuelilpan is a largely agrarian community 90 minutes by car from the capital and just 8 miles from the state-run Tula oil refinery. It's surrounded by verdant alfalfa fields and power plant stacks, and it is reasonably affluent by rural Mexican standards. Hidalgo state data show that about half the community lives in moderate poverty, in line with the national average.
At first, the gasoline leak was manageable, residents say, emitting a tame fountain of fuel that allowed for filling small buckets at a time. But as the crowd swelled to more than 600, people became impatient.
That's when a man rammed a piece of rebar into a patch, according to Irma Velasco, who lives near the alfalfa field where the explosion took place, and gasoline shot 20 feet into the air, like water from a geyser.
A carnival atmosphere took over. Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners. Families and friends formed human chains and guard posts to stockpile containers with fuel.
The fireball that engulfed those scooping up gasoline underscores the dangers of the epidemic of fuel theft that Mexico's new president has vowed to fight.
Soldiers formed a perimeter around an area the size of a soccer field where townspeople were incinerated by the fireball, reduced to clumps of ash and bones. Officials suggested Sunday that fields like this, where people were clearly complicit with the crime of fuel theft, could be seized by the government.
But Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero ruled out bringing charges against townspeople who merely collected spilled fuel, and in particular those hospitalized for burns.
"Look, we are not going to victimize the communities," he said. "We are going to search for those responsible for the acts that have generated this tragedy."
The disaster came just three weeks after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had 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 crackdown has led to fuel scarcity at gas stations throughout the country due to shifts in distribution, both licit and illicit.
López Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that results in about $3 billion a year in stolen fuel. Legally, that fuel belongs to the Mexican people, with Pemex acting as custodian.
But Pemex has long been plagued by corruption. López Obrador described the company on Sunday as "at the service of people without scruples," saying Pemex had been kidnapped by "a gang of ruffians," referring to crooked government officials and executives within the company.
"Mexico needs to end corruption," López Obrador said Sunday. "This is not negotiable."