A huge fire exploded at a pipeline leaking fuel in central Mexico on Friday, killing at least 21 people and badly burning 71 others as locals were collecting the spilling gasoline in buckets and garbage cans, officials said.
The leak was caused by an illegal tap that fuel thieves had drilled into the pipeline in a small town in the state of Hidalgo, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
Video footage showed dozens of residents near the town of Tlahuelilpan gathered to collect spilled fuel in buckets, garbage cans and other vessels. It appeared 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 then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screams could be heard.
Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad said 21 people were killed immediately and 71 suffered burns in the blast at the duct that carries fuel —apparently gasoline — from the Gulf coast to Tula, a city just north of Mexico City.
"Caring for the wounded is our top priority," Fayad said.
Pemex attributed the blaze to "the manipulation of an illegal tap."
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declared an offensive against fuel theft and the blast will further focus attention on the $3 billion per-year illegal industry.
"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.
Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported at about 5:00 p.m. local time.
"There was a report that residents were on the scene trying to obtain fuel," according to a police report. Two hours later, the pipeline burst into flames.