A massive blast along a state-owned pipeline in central Mexico killed 27 people, injured 52 others, and engulfed dozens of homes in a raging inferno, officials said.
Puebla state secretary Valentin Meneses said the pre-dawn explosion occurred along the Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) pipeline in the town of Texmelucan, where thieves were trying to steal fuel. Early indications suggested it was caused by a perforation of the pipeline during the attempted theft.
“A criminal gang punctured the pipeline of state-owned Pemex, which spilled fuel out of control because of the high degree of pressure,” said Mr Meneses.
“The streets began to flood, then came a spark and we saw rivers of fire in the streets.”
Some 83 homes were partially damaged and 32 were completely destroyed in the blaze, according to Mr Meneses, who noted that emergency crews had managed to bring the flames under control. Officials had initially reported that at least 11 people were killed.
A sweeping cloud of thick black smoke hung over dozens of kilometres of the pipeline and people rushed from their homes for safety. Stunned witnesses, some clutching infants, clogged the roadsides outside Texmelucan, about 100 kilometres south-east of Mexico City.
The flames were so hot they bent wrought iron caging, shattered glass windows and doors, and reduced several cars to smoldering metal shells.
Leafless trees, scorched and twisted, reached upward from the smoking earth, and firemen shoveled a thick coat of ash that littered the streets.
Among the victims, five children and an entire family were caught by surprise by the explosion as they slept in their home. The ash-covered bodies of four other victims lay inside a burnt-out house.
Hundreds of people were told to leave their homes and move to shelters as emergency workers fought a raging fire. Officials worried the fuel may have spilled into the nearby Atoyac River.
Smoke could be seen as far as the city of Puebla, the state capital, located some 32km from Texmelucan. Emergency officials said the blast broke windows and burned dozens of cars in a three-kilometre radius.
Locals said criminal gangs operate drilling machinery and sell stolen fuel to truck drivers passing through roads in the region.
Rescue workers, firefighters and Mexican Army soldiers were deployed to the region to respond to the emergency.
Pemex experts also arrived on site to help determine the cause of the explosion.
The company issued a statement saying the blast was caused by “fire on two pipelines,” whose fuel supply was immediately cut off.
It was the most serious explosion to have shaken Pemex facilities this year. A September fire at a refinery in northwestern Cadereyta left two workers dead.
The theft of fuel from Mexican oil pipelines has been on the rise in recent years, causing an average loss of 10 billion pesos (800 million dollars) per year, according to the authorities.