MEXICO CITY — A leaking fuel pipeline triggered a massive blaze in central Mexico Saturday, killing at least 21 people and injuring another 71, officials said.
Omar Fayad, governor of Hidalgo state, said locals at the site of the leak were scrambling to steal some of the leaking oil when at least 20 of them were burned to death.
“I’ve been told that 20 have been burned to death and another 54 burn victims being treated” in hospitals, Fayad told local FaroTV, with the blaze still raging.
Scores of locals were collecting fuel in buckets and cans from spouting leaks, and making off with the stolen gasoline, local media showed.
“What we know is that it was an illegal fuel theft site, and that authorities were aware of it” when it burned, Fayed added.
Hours later, and after sundown, the first images of the tragedy were shown on television, with desperate people fleeing the scene, screaming for help.
Federal and state firefighters and ambulances run by state oil giant Pemex were headed to the area to help burn victims, the governor added.
Rampant fuel theft
The tragedy comes just as anti-corruption crusader President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador presses implementation of his national fuel theft prevention plan.
Illegal taps of Pemex pipelines cost Mexico an estimated $3 billion in 2017.
But the government’s strategy to fight the problem has led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours — sometimes days — to fuel up their vehicles.
Lopez Obrador, who took office on December 1, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient.
Meanwhile, authorities have opened 1,700 individual investigations for fuel theft, which became a massive black-market industry in Mexico under previous governments, involving powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.
Lopez Obrador’s government has shut off key pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex production facilities.
Tanker trucks are being used to deliver fuel in the meantime, but experts say there are not nearly enough of them.