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Horrifying fireball at ruptured Mexico oil pipeline kills at least 71; dozens missing

TLAHUELILPAN, MEXICO - JANUARY 19: Firefighters work to control the fire after an explosion in a pipeline belonging to Mexican oil company PEMEX on January 18, 2019 in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico. In a statement PEMEX announced that the explosion was caused by the illegal manipulation of the pipeline, minutes before the accident, some videos were shot where people could be seen filling drums, even car fuel tanks. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Hector Vivas | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The death toll has risen to 71 from a grisly explosion at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico that occurred amid government efforts to curb widespread fuel theft.

The explosion badly burned dozens of other people and over 80 were listed as missing a day after the incident as relatives of the deceased and onlookers gathered round the scene of carnage in the town of Tlahuelilpan, about 62 miles north of Mexico City.

The pipeline blast took place Friday as people collected spilled gasoline in buckets, plastic jugs and garbage cans. Video from the scene showed what appeared to be gasoline spouting dozens of feet into the air.

Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad confirmed the updated body count Saturday afternoon in an interview with Mexico's ForoTV. Earlier in the day, he told reporters as a press briefing that the death toll stood at 66 people and another 76 injured.

The blast came just three weeks after Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that have 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.

It is likely to further intensify efforts in Mexico to crack down on the illegal fuel taps and focus attention on the fight against the $3 billion per-year illegal fuel theft industry.

The Mexican president said Saturday that the attorney general's office will open an investigation to determine whether the explosion was intentional — caused by an individual or group — or whether the fireball occurred due to the inherent risk of clandestine fuel extraction from ducts.

"We are going to eradicate that which not only causes material damages, it is not only what the nation loses by this illegal trade, this black market of fuel, but the risk, the danger, the loss of human lives," he said.

Lopez Obrador called on townspeople to give testimony not only about Friday's events in Hidalgo, but about the entire black market chain, including who punctures the pipelines, who informs locals about collecting fuel in containers, and how fuel is then put to personal use or sold.

He said: "I believe in the people, I trust in the people, and I know that with these painful, lamentable lessons, the people will also distance themselves from these practices."

The war against fuel theft was a theme repeated by people in Tlahuelilpan, which is crossed by pipelines and located just a few miles from a refinery.

"What happened here should serve as an example for the whole nation to unite behind the fight that the president is carrying out against this ill," said municipal health director Jorge Aguilar Lopez.

In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in a central Mexico near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children. That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles wide in San Martin Texmelucan.

State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex attributed Friday's tragedy to "the manipulation of an illegal tap."

Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5:00 p.m. local time.

"There was a report that residents were on the scene trying to obtain fuel," according to a police report. Two hours later, the pipeline burst into flames.

Video footage showed dozens of people in an almost festive atmosphere gathered in a field where a duct had been breached by fuel thieves. Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the explosion, some themselves burning and waving their arms.

On Saturday, several of the dead lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the flames; another few black-charred corpses seemed to embrace each other in death.

Lost shoes were scattered around the scorched field, as were plastic jugs and jerry cans that the victims had carried to gather spilling fuel.

"Ay, no, where is my son?" wailed Hugo Olvera Estrada, whose 13-year-old son, Hugo Olvera Bautista, was at the spot where the fire erupted. Wrapped in a blanket outside a clinic, the man had already gone to six local hospitals looking for his child.

After returning home from middle school yesterday, his father recounted, the boy went to join the crowd scooping up gasoline. Olvera Estrada believed he was influenced by older and supposedly wise men from the town of about 20,000. "The older men brought him," he said.