clearn.png
Monday August 19th, 2019 6:39AM
5:38AM ( 1 hour ago ) Weather Alert

Death toll reaches 79 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (AP) — People in the town where a gasoline explosion killed at least 79 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.

A carnival atmosphere took over. Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners. Families and friends formed human chains and guard posts to stockpile containers with fuel.

For nearly two hours, more than a dozen soldiers stood guard on the outskirts of the field, warning civilians not to go near. Officials say the soldiers were outnumbered and their instructions were to not intervene. Only a week earlier, people in a different town had beaten some soldiers who tried to stop them from gorging on state-owned fuel.

The lure of free fuel was irresistible for many: They came like moths to a flame, parking vehicles on a nearby road.

The smell of gas grew stronger and stronger as thousands of barrels spewed. Those closest to the gusher apparently became delirious, intoxicated by fumes. Townspeople stumbled about. The night filled with an eerie mist, a mixture of cool mountain air and fine particles of gasoline.

Velasco said she rushed to aid a man she saw staggering along the road and away from the gusher. She removed his gas-drenched clothes to help alleviate the overwhelming stench of toxic fuel. Then she helped another young man, who described to her how the geyser had erupted.

Cerron was at the heart of the mayhem when he sensed mounting danger.

He pulled a 70-year-old man out of a ditch where gasoline was pooling; the man had passed out from the vapors. Then Cerron, a student, decided it was time to go home.

"They looked like zombies trying to get all that gasoline out," says Cerron.

He passed soldiers warning would-be scavengers to stay away. It's going to explode, they said. And it did. Once home, Cerron turned for one last glance at the gusher. Instead he saw flames.

The fireball that engulfed those scooping up gasoline underscores the dangers of the epidemic of fuel theft that Mexico's new president has vowed to fight.

By Sunday morning the death toll from Friday's blaze had risen to 79, with another 81 hospitalized, according to federal Health Minister Jorge Alcocer. Dozens more were missing.

Soldiers formed a perimeter around an area the size of a soccer field where townspeople were incinerated by the fireball, reduced to clumps of ash and bones. Officials suggested Sunday that fields like this, where people were clearly complicit with the crime of fuel theft, could be seized by the government.

But Attorney General Alejandro Gertz ruled out bringing charges against townspeople who merely collected spilled fuel, and in particular those hospitalized for burns. "Look, we are not going to victimize the communities," he said. "We are going to search for those responsible for the acts that have generated this tragedy."

The disaster came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to fuel scarcity at gas stations throughout the country due to shifts in distribution, both licit and illicit.

Officials say pipeline in and around Tlahuelilpan has been perforated 10 times over the past three months.

Lopez Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that results in about $3 billion per year in stolen fuel. Legally, that fuel belongs to the Mexican people, with state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, acting as custodian.

But Pemex has long been plagued by corruption. Lopez Obrador described the company on Sunday as "at the service of people without scruples," saying Pemex had been kidnapped by "a gang of ruffians," referring to crooked government officials and executives within the company.

Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that has become an economic salve for poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. Gangs recruit locals who then rally support from the community via gifts or threats of violence.

Storage sheds and warehouses dot the region, with landowners earning extra income from the rent or gifts of fuel.

The president plans a tour next week to several towns outside Mexico City where fuel theft has become entrenched in the local economy. He promises jobs and financial aid as an alternative for communities along pipelines that are somewhat dependent on income from fuel theft rings.

"Mexico needs to end corruption," Lopez Obrador said Sunday. "This is not negotiable."

Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck.

Another pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. But there were no reported casualties.

In December 2010, authorities blamed thieves for a pipeline explosion in the central Mexico state of Puebla, not far from the capital, that killed 28 people, including 13 children.

___

Associated Press writer Amy Guthrie in Mexico City contributed to this report.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP World News, AP Business, AP Business - Industries, AP Business - Utilities
© Copyright 2019 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Death toll reaches 79 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror
They were warned to stay away from the geyser of gasoline gushing from the ruptured pipeline in central Mexico, but Gerardo Perez says he and his joined others in bypassing the soldiers
10:01AM ( 7 minutes ago )
Major winter storm wreaks havoc on travel
President Donald Trump is warning Americans affected by the winter storm to "be careful."
9:41AM ( 27 minutes ago )
Federer, 37, shocked by Tsitsipas, 20, at Australian Open
Roger Federer's bid for 3rd consecutive Australian Open title ends in surprising 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) loss to 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 1st player from Greece to reach Grand Slam quarterfinal
9:39AM ( 29 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
GOP senators try to figure how out closely to run with Trump
Republican senators up for re-election in 2020 are trying to figure out how closely to align themselves with President Donald Trump
8:29AM ( 1 hour ago )
Child is father of the man: Federer loses to Tsistsipas, 20
Roger Federer's bid for a third consecutive Australian Open title ended in a surprising 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) loss to 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the first player from Greece to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal
8:03AM ( 2 hours ago )
World's oldest man, 113, dies at his home in northern Japan
The world's oldest man has died at his home _ a hot springs inn _ in northern Japan at the age of 113
6:37AM ( 3 hours ago )
AP National News
Storm that carpeted Midwest with snow barrels to New England
A major winter storm that blanketed most of the Midwest with snow earlier in the weekend is barreling toward New England
11:41PM ( 10 hours ago )
Tshisekedi declared Congo's president, but runner-up revolts
Congo election crisis: Tshisekedi is declared the president, but runner-up Fayulu revolts
11:27PM ( 10 hours ago )
Trump offers temporary 'Dreamers' deal for border wall
Trump offers to extend temporary protection for people brought to U.S. illegally as children in a bid to secure border wall funding.
11:22PM ( 10 hours ago )
Top General short headlines
Lebanon uses Arab summit to call for Syrian refugees' return
Lebanon is using an Arab economic summit to call for the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas of their war-torn country, where the nearly eight-year civil war is still underway despite a recent series of government victories
8:24AM ( 1 hour ago )
With Trump out, Davos chief eyes fixing world architecture
The founder of the World Economic Forum says U.S. President Donald Trump would have been an "interesting discussion partner" at its annual Davos event starting this week but acknowledges that the partial U.S. government shutdown scuttled those plans
8:19AM ( 1 hour ago )
Minister says UK faces 'political tsunami' if Brexit halted
Britain's trade minister says the country will face a "political tsunami" if the government does not deliver on voters' decision to leave the European Union
5:46AM ( 4 hours ago )
AP Business
The Latest: Mexican local recalls geyser of gas
A local of Mexico's Hidalgo state says civilians ignored soldiers' warnings to stay clear of a geyser of gasoline that later exploded, killing at least 66 people
2:30PM ( 19 hours ago )
Fireball at illegal Mexico pipeline tap kills 66; 85 missing
Forensic experts are attempting to separate and count charred heaps of corpses in central Mexico after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap, killing at least 66
10:32AM ( 23 hours ago )
Horrifying fireball at ruptured Mexico oil pipeline kills 21
A huge fire exploded at a pipeline leaking fuel in central Mexico on Friday, killing at least 21 people and badly burning 71 others as locals were collecting the spilling gasoline in buckets and garbage cans
8:00AM ( 1 day ago )
AP Business - Industries
Swiss, German students protest inaction on climate change
Thousands of students are holding rallies across Germany and Switzerland to protest the lack of action against climate change
10:29AM ( 1 day ago )
Work on UK nuclear power plant halted over financing impasse
Work on a major new nuclear power station in Britain has been suspended after the contracted developer, Japan's Hitachi, said it had been unable to agree on financing
6:49AM ( 3 days ago )
Less beef, more beans. Experts say world needs a new diet
A report says limiting meat is optimal for people and the planet, but not everyone agrees
10:46PM ( 3 days ago )
AP Business - Utilities
Major winter storm wreaks havoc on travel
President Donald Trump is warning Americans affected by the winter storm to "be careful."
9:41AM ( 27 minutes ago )
Federer, 37, shocked by Tsitsipas, 20, at Australian Open
Roger Federer's bid for 3rd consecutive Australian Open title ends in surprising 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) loss to 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 1st player from Greece to reach Grand Slam quarterfinal
9:39AM ( 29 minutes ago )
Congo calm after court upholds election win of Tshisekedi
Congo's capital was calm Sunday with residents attending church after the Constitutional Court confirmed the presidential election victory of Felix Tshisekedi
9:10AM ( 58 minutes ago )
Child is father of the man: Federer loses to Tsitsipas, 20
Roger Federer's bid for a third consecutive Australian Open title ended in a surprising 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) loss to 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the first player from Greece to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal
9:09AM ( 59 minutes ago )
Hard terrain slows rescue of Spanish boy trapped in borehole
Rescuers in southern Spain say that the frantic effort to reach a two-year-old boy who fell into a borehole seven days ago have again been slowed by difficult terrain
9:00AM ( 1 hour ago )