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At Least 66 Killed as Pipeline Explosion Rocks Central Mexico

Death toll from tragedy in state of Hidalgo may rise as scores were also wounded

Family members of a victim cry when recognizing the body after an explosion in a pipeline belonging to Mexican oil company PEMEX on January 19, 2019 in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico.

Family members of a victim cry when recognizing the body after an explosion in a pipeline belonging to Mexican oil company PEMEX on January 19, 2019 in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico. In a statement, PEMEX announced that the explosion was caused by the illegal manipulation of the pipeline, as minutes before the accident videos were shot where people could be seen filling drums and car fuel tanks. (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Local residents were advised to take precautions from a lingering toxic cloud on Saturday as authorities in the central Mexican state of Hildalgo said the death toll from a gasoline pipeline explosion had risen to 66.

The deadly fireball on Friday night in the town of Tlahuelilpan left another 76 wounded, seven of whom were less than 18 years old, said Gov. Omar Fayad.

The cause of the explosion, said state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), was a rupture caused by illegal tapping of the pipeline. Video posted to social media shows the moments when the explosion happened:

From the Associated Press:

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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.

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

That "ill" is fuel theft, which newly-sworn in President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he is now even more determined to crack down on.  Yet, as Agence France-Presse reports, "the strategy to fight the problem led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours—sometimes days—to fill up their vehicles."

Indeed, villagers from Tlahuelilpan had come to the scene of the leak ahead of the explosion to gather fuel. According to the New York Times, citing information from Mexico's defense secretary, Luis Cresencio Sandoval, there were as many as 800 villagers at the site of the rupture to gather fuel, who faced 25 troops attempting to stop them from taking the resource.

"A lot of people arrived with their jerry cans, because of the gasoline shortages we've had," said 55-year-old Martin Trejo, who was looking for his son, who had gone to collect the fuel.

The fire has now been extinguished, and forensic experts are working with the burned bodies as the fallout from what is said to be one of the nation's deadliest pipeline-related disasters continues to unfold.

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