A massive fireball that engulfed people scooping up fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured by thieves in central Mexico killed 21 people and badly burned 71 others.
It came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018.
Crowds of townspeople are often involved, either aiding thieves or collecting spilled fuel in primitive containers.
Fires caused by tapping have occurred before, but seldom with the scale and horrifying death toll of Friday’s fire in the state of Hidalgo, which came as people collected the spilled liquid in buckets, plastic jugs and garbage cans.
The leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 100 kilometres north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
Video footage showed dozens of residents in an almost festive atmosphere as whole families gathered in a field as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap.
Footage, seen by the Associated Press news agency, then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the flames, some themselves burning and waving their arms.
Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad said 21 people were killed immediately and 71 suffered burns in the blast at the duct that carries fuel, apparently petrol, from the Gulf coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City.
Pemex attributed the blaze to “the manipulation of an illegal tap”.
Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5pm local time (11:00 GMT).
Another pipeline burst into flames in the neighboring state of Queretaro on Friday, because of another illegal tap but Pemex said the fire near the city of San Juan del Rio was “in an unpopulated area and there is no risk to human beings.”
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 10km wide in San Martin Texmelucan.