MEXICO CITY — A huge fire exploded at a pipeline leaking fuel in central Mexico on Friday, killing at least 20 people and badly burning 60 others as locals collected the spilling gasoline in buckets, officials said.
The leak was caused by fuel thieves illegally tapping the pipeline in a small town in the state of Hidalgo, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
Video footage showed dozens of residents near the town of Tlahuelilpan gathered to collect spilled fuel in buckets, garbage cans and other vessels. Fuel was seen spouting dozens of feet into the air from the tap. Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze.
Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad said 20 people were killed immediately and 60 suffered burns in the blast at the duct that carries fuel —apparently gasoline — from the Gulf coast to the Mexico City area.
"Caring for the wounded is our top priority," Fayad said.
Pemex attributed the blaze to "the manipulation of an illegal tap."
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declared an offensive against fuel theft, and on Friday he called on all branches of government to assist the victims.
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.
It is not the first time such an accident has occurred.
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 (10 kilometers) wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against the $3 billion per-year fuel theft industry after taking office Dec. 1. Thieves drilled about 12,581 illegal taps in the first 10 months of 2018 and the country has deployed 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries.
The new administration has also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. But there aren't enough trucks, and long lines at gas stations have plagued several states.