Scores of Mexicans were gathered around the breached pipeline to collect some “free” fuel when it exploded Friday, killing at least 79 people and injuring dozens near a small town in the state of Hidalgo. Officials say the breach was caused by an illegal pipeline tap.
“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,” municipal health director Jorge Aguilar Lopez said.
Photos and video on social media show residents from the nearby town, Tlahuelilpan, celebrating around a geyser of fuel spraying out of the breached pipeline on Friday evening, approximately 100 kilometres north of Mexico City. Many can be seen collecting the fuel in buckets and garbage bins.
WATCH: Mexico pipeline explosion that killed at least 79 puts new attention on strategy to stop fuel theft
One video shows the moment when the deadly explosion rips through the pipeline, sending flames shooting up into the air. The explosion appeared to set several people on fire.
At least 76 people are still missing, according to Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad.
The oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said the pipeline was breached with an illegal tap.
Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at approximately 5 p.m. local time and the explosion occurred two hours later.
WATCH: Multiple people killed in Mexico fuel pipeline blast
The government said soldiers reached the scene after Pemex detected the illegal tap but could not secure the area in time.
“At some point, there were too many people there, and the army and military personnel withdrew to avoid problems,” Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told broadcaster Televisa. “It was just as they were withdrawing that the explosion occurred.”
Another pipeline burst into flames in the neighbouring state of Queretaro on Friday because of another illegal tap. 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.”
WATCH: Video shows geyser of fuel spouting dozens of feet into the air in Mexico’s Hidalgo state
Mexican authorities scolded would-be fuel thieves after the explosions amid a renewed government effort to cut down on the rampant problem. Gangs are estimated to have stolen US$3 billion in fuel last year.
New President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to crack down on fuel thieves in the country. He ordered 4,000 troops last week to guard the nation’s pipelines and fuel depots in an effort to stop the thefts.
“I greatly lament the grave situation Tlahuelilpan is suffering because of the explosion of the duct,” Lopez Obrador tweeted. He called on all branches of government to assist the victims.
“I am calling on the entire population not to be accomplices to fuel theft,” the state governor, Fayad, said. “What happened today in Tlahuelilpan must never happen again.”
Officials say gangs drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day.
The thefts spiked on Dec. 18, prompting major shortages at legitimate gas stations fed by pipelines in Mexico City and outlying states. Tanker trucks have been struggling to meet the demand.
“There are a lot of people waiting in lines at gas stations, and they’re understandably desperate and tired and upset,” Lopez Obrador said on Jan. 11. “But we are asking for people’s understanding. Together, we have to solve this problem for all Mexicans.”
Lopez Obrador faces an uphill battle in his efforts to stop fuel theft. Gangs have been able to win the loyalty of whole neighbourhoods, using free gasoline and getting locals to act as lookouts and confront military patrols carrying out raids against the thefts.
WATCH: Ambulances transport wounded in Mexico’s Hidalgo state after pipeline explosion
Gangs disabled another critical pipeline on Tuesday.
In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in 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 10 kilometres wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
The pipeline involved in Friday’s blast was carrying gasoline from the Gulf coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City.
—With files from the Associated Press