Death toll from Mexico fuel explosion rises to 79: official

Death toll from Mexico fuel explosion rises to 79: official
General view of the site where a massive blaze triggered by a leaky pipeline killed 79 people in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico.
PHOTO: AFP

The death toll from a fiery explosion in central Mexico rose to 79 on Sunday as authorities vowed to hold accountable those responsible for a fuel-line leak that drew hundreds of people looking to gather gasoline.

The search for remains at the site of the explosion in the state of Hidalgo ended late Saturday but officials indicated that the death toll could still rise.

Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said 66 people were hospitalised in Hidalgo, and others in worse conditions had been moved to Mexico City for specialised treatment.

"There are patients in serious condition with burns of more than 80 per cent (of their bodies)," he said, adding that their prognosis was "reserved."

Alcocer said the remains of six more bodies had been recovered before the search ended late Saturday, raising the death toll to 79.

Mexican officials said the death toll from the fire could rise even further, as soldiers guarded the scene.Photo: AFP

Family members of the victims have called on the government to continue the search for remains and to bring back forensic experts for that purpose.

Funerals already have begun, but the handover of remains has been slow because many of the victims were burned beyond recognition.

The Hidalgo state prosecutor said 54 of the dead could not be readily identified, and require DNA analysis.

Mourners began arriving little by little at the home of one of the victims, while in the adjacent street a hearse carried another victim.

"He's gone forever," sobbed a woman as the remains of Cesar Jimenez were transferred to a church for a funeral mass attended by dozens of relatives and friends.

HUNDREDS DRAWN TO FUEL LEAK

Hundreds of people had been drawn to the place where suspected fuel thieves tapped into a pipeline in the town of Tlahuelilpan.

Relatives of three of the 79 people killed in a massive blaze triggered by a leaky pipeline in Tlahuelilpan, attend their funeral in Teltipan de Juarez community, Hidalgo state, Mexico.
Photo: AFP

Images captured by local media showed a torrent of fuel escaping from a pipeline as people converged on the site with buckets and jerrycans to collect gasoline.

A massive explosion engulfed the area in flames, and local media showed images of people screaming as they fled, their clothes in flames, some with severe burns.

Asked whether those hospitalised would be considered suspects, Attorney General Alejandro Gertz said investigators do not seek to "victimize the communities."

"We are going to find those responsible for actions that generated this tragedy," he said. "Victimizing the whole population is not (the investigation's) function nor is it established in the law."

The disaster came during a crackdown by the new government of President Manuel Lopez Obrador on fuel thefts, which triggered shortages of gasoline.

On Friday, when authorities heard that fuel traffickers had punctured the pipeline, an army unit of about 25 soldiers arrived and attempted to block off the area, Defence Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval told reporters.

Photo: AFP

But the soldiers were unable to contain the estimated 700 civilians -- including entire families -- who swarmed in to collect the spilled gasoline, witnesses said.

The armed soldiers had been moved away from the pipeline to avoid any risk of confrontation with the crowd when the blast occurred, about two hours after the pipeline was first breached, Sandoval said.

Lopez Obrador, a leftist who took office only weeks ago, travelled to the scene early Saturday.

He did not fault the soldiers, saying: "The attitude of the army was correct. It is not easy to impose order on a crowd." He vowed to continue fighting the growing problem of fuel theft.

"I am deeply saddened by the suffering in Tlahuelilpan," Lopez Obrador wrote on Twitter. He called on his "whole government" to extend assistance.

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