Sat | Aug 17, 2019

Death toll reaches 85 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror

Published:Monday | January 21, 2019 | 10:05 AM
AP photo

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (AP) — People in the town where a gasoline explosion killed at least 85 people 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 attempts to stem widespread fuel theft, this particular section of pipeline had come back into service after being 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 located 90 minutes by car from the capital and just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the state-run Tula oil refinery.

It’s surrounded by verdant alfalfa fields and power plant stacks, and is reasonably affluent by rural Mexican standards.

Hidalgo state data shows about half the community lives in moderate poverty, in line with the national average.

At first, the gasoline leak was manageable, locals 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 (6 meters) into the air, like water from a geyser.

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