MEXICO CITY—A massive explosion at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico killed at least 73 people and injured another 74 on Friday, as rescue workers and forensic experts intensified efforts on Saturday morning to separate and identify charred corpses at the site.
The illegal tap and resulting blast occurred in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, about 70 miles north of Mexico City and some 13 miles from the Tula refinery, one of six refineries owned and operated by state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. At least 65 people are listed as missing, Mexican authorities said on Saturday.
Pemex said that tappers had punctured the pipeline that runs between the seaport of Tuxpan, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and the Tula refinery.
Videos circulating on Twitter showed that before the explosion, hundreds of local residents had gathered to fill plastic tanks from a geyser of fuel spouting from the pipeline, while soldiers stood by watching.
“It’s very painful that these practices have become ingrained in our country. The images of people with cans and tanks for taking out gasoline or diesel is an issue that unfortunately extends throughout oil country,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Saturday.
The tragedy comes as Mr. López Obrador launched a crackdown on widespread fuel theft. Mexico has been gripped by chronic gasoline shortages for the last two weeks after the government shut off several key fuel pipelines to combat fuel theft. Last year, “huachicoleros,” as the gasoline thieves are locally known, stole roughly $3 billion in fuel from Pemex, according to government estimates.
“This, unfortunately, shows that we have to eliminate this practice that brings so much tragedy, and that isn’t just a problem in this municipality or this state,” the president added, vowing to intensify his crackdown on fuel theft.
This month, Mexico’s government switched most fuel shipments to tanker trucks and deployed about 5,000 military and federal police to guard Pemex’s refineries, distribution centers and fuel pipelines while Pemex workers fixed illegal taps.
Fuel theft has become big business in Mexico in recent years, drawing organized crime groups such as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel and the Zetas, better known for illicit drug trafficking.
The explosion represents one of the deadliest disasters related to Mexico’s network of pipelines, which supply the country with gasoline, diesel and crude oil, in nearly a decade. In 2010, an oil pipeline that had been tapped by organized criminal gangs exploded in San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida, in the nearby state of Puebla, killing 29 people, including 13 children.
Omar Fayad, Hidalgo state governor, said at a news conference that hundreds of people had gathered at the site of the illegal tap, and that the explosion happened around 7 p.m. Friday. Emergency personnel extinguished the blaze around four hours later, he said.
“The armed forces tried to ask, to persuade people to leave the area because it was becoming very dangerous. However, the great majority did not listen to this request,” Mr. Fayad said. “It’s very sad for the state of Hidalgo. Today we are in mourning, and Mexico is in mourning, for the victims.”
Among the injured were eight children.
Octavio Romero, Pemex’s chief executive, said Saturday that the illegal tap took place some 8 miles from the Tula refinery. As soon as a drop in pressure was detected, the company closed the nearest valve and stopped the flow of gasoline, but about 10,000 barrels of gasoline remained in the section of pipeline that was punctured, he said.
The government initially shut down the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline on Dec. 23, and restarted it periodically since then. Thieves have tapped the same pipeline, which usually transports about 70,000 barrels of gasoline and fuel additives each day, four times before Friday’s blast, causing interruptions in service, Mr. Romero said.
“It’s a pipeline that’s very important to the distribution of fuel to the country,” he said, supplying materials to the refineries that supply some of central Mexico’s largest cities, including Guadalajara, León and Morelia.
Mexico’s military secured the site of the blast as rescue workers assisted victims and forensic experts began to separate and identify bodies in the scorched field.
Also on Friday, fuel thieves punctured a pipeline that runs between the Tula refinery and the Salamanca refinery, causing a fire in the municipality of San Juan del Río, in the central state of Querétaro. Pemex didn’t report any deaths or injuries from that fire.
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