Zoyla Perez awoke before dawn to an overpowering smell, like gasoline. Outside the ground looked as if it were flowing in tar, as crude gushing from a pipeline rushed down the street and into a river.
Suddenly flames leapt skyward as a massive explosion laid waste to parts of the central Mexican city of San Martin Texmelucan, incinerating people, cars, houses and trees.
“It was like we were living in an inferno,” said Perez, 27. “Everything was covered in smoke.”
At least 28 people were killed, 13 of them children, in a disaster authorities blamed on oil thieves. At least 52 people were hurt and 84 remained in a shelter late on Sunday after fleeing San Martin, which is about 90km east of Mexico City.
More than 115 homes were scorched, 32 of them destroyed.
Though Perez managed to escape with her husband and three children, her brother-in-law’s family was missing. People sobbed as firefighters pulled charred bodies from the incinerated homes, some of the remains barely more than piles of ashes and bones.
Officials, including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, said the explosion was apparently caused by thieves trying to steal crude oil, and local, state and federal agencies promised to stop at nothing to bring those responsible to justice.
The blast, initially estimated to have affected 5,000 residents in a 5km radius, left metal and pavement twisted and in some cases burned to ash in the intense heat.
Investigators found a hole in the pipeline and equipment for extracting crude, said Laura Gurza, chief of the federal Civil Protection emergency response agency.
Thieves “lost control because of the high pressure with which the fuel exits the pipeline,” said Valentin Meneses, interior secretary for the state of Puebla.
Several dead bodies were found in cars near the location of the leak, but authorities didn’t know if they were involved in the theft or there by coincidence.
The oil flowed more than 1km from the leak down a city street before diverting into a river. At some point a spark of unknown origin caused both to erupt in flames.
Calderon toured the disaster area on Sunday.