Sun, Jan 20, 2019 - Page 1 News List

Fuel pipeline blaze in Mexico kills 21, injures dozens

‘BURNED TO BITS’:A government crackdown to end gasoline theft has led to fuel shortages and was blamed for causing more people to resort to stealing gasoline

AFP, TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico

Soldiers stand guard near a fire after a leaking gasoline pipeline erupted in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, on Friday.

Photo: EPA-EFE

A massive fire broke out at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico on Friday, killing at least 21 people and injuring 71 more, just as the Mexican government wages a major crackdown on fuel theft.

Scores of local residents with jerry cans and buckets had been collecting gasoline that was gushing from a leaking pipeline when an explosion occurred, witnesses said.

Video taken in the aftermath showed desperate people fleeing the scene and screaming for help as the enormous fire lit up the night sky in Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo State, about 105km north of Mexico City.

“I went just to see what was happening and then the explosion happened. I rushed to help people,” said Fernando Garcia, 47. “I had to claw through pieces of people who had already been burned to bits.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador traveled to the scene yesterday morning.

“I am deeply saddened by the suffering in Tlahuelilpan caused by the explosion of a pipeline,” he earlier wrote on Twitter. “I call on the whole government to assist people there.”

Federal and state firefighters, and ambulances run by state oil company Pemex rushed to help victims with burns and take the wounded to hospitals.

The flood of patients overflowed local clinics and hospitals, Agence France-Presse correspondents at the scene said.

Mexican Secretary of Security Alfonso Durazo said at about midnight that the fire had been brought under control.

Pemex said it was also responding to another fire at a botched pipeline tap in Queretaro State, although in that case there were no victims.

The tragedy came as the federal government is waging a highly publicized war on fuel theft, a problem that cost Mexico an estimated US$3 billion in 2017.

The Mexican government has shut off key pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex’s production facilities.

However, the strategy has led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including in the capital, Mexico City, forcing people to line for hours — sometimes days — to fill up their vehicles.

Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 last year, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient.

At the scene, some people blamed the shortages for the tragedy.

“A lot of people arrived with their jerry cans, because of the gasoline shortages we’ve had,” said Martin Trejo, 55, who was searching for his son, one of those who had gone to collect the leaking fuel.

As part of Lopez Obrador’s crackdown, authorities have opened 1,700 investigations for fuel theft and related money laundering.

Tanker trucks are being used to deliver fuel, but experts have said that there are not nearly enough of them.

Mexico City residents faced a second week of fuel shortages this week, although lines at service stations were shorter than last week.

Citibanamex on Wednesday said that the shortages would cost Latin America’s second-largest economy about US$2 billion “if conditions return to normal in the coming days.”

The roots of the fuel theft problem run deep in Mexico, where the practice — known locally as huachicoleo, or moonshining — is big business for some communities.

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