The death toll from a pipeline explosion in central Mexico has risen to 66, according to Hidalgo state governor Omar Fayad.
Over 85 other people on Saturday were listed as missing a day after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 62 miles north of Mexico City.
Municipal health director Jorge Aguilar Lopez said: “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.”
The tragedy came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs drilling dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day.
It is now likely to further intensify efforts to crack down on the illegal taps and focus attention on Mr Lopez Obrador’s fight against the illegal fuel theft industry.
Video footage showed dozens of people in an almost festive atmosphere gathered in a field where a duct had been breached by fuel thieves.
Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the explosion, some themselves burning and waving their arms.
In an early morning press conference on Saturday, Mr Lopez Obrador vowed to continue the fight against the billion-dollar illegal fuel theft industry.
“We are going to eradicate that which not only causes material damages, it is not only what the nation loses by this illegal trade, this black market of fuel, but the risk, the danger, the loss of human lives,” he said.
The war against fuel theft was a theme repeated by people in Tlahuelilpan, which is crossed by pipelines and located just a few miles from a refinery.
Another pipeline burst into flames earlier on Friday in the neighbouring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. Fuel company 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 also blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in central Mexico that killed 28 people, including 13 children.
That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
Mr Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office on December 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries.
His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. There are not enough trucks, however, and long queues at gas stations have plagued several states.
Marciel Cervantes fears his brother, Isaac Aurelio Cervantes, is among those lost in Friday’s blast. He found the 26-year-old’s car parked on the road next to the field, and said his brother has not answered his phone.
“The people already know what they’re getting into with this,” he said as he wrapped a blanket tightly around himself against the cold. “But they don’t understand.”