The death toll in fuel pipeline fire incident in Mexico rose to 85 as forensic experts attempted to separate and count charred heaps of corpses in central part of the country on Saturday. The incident occurred after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap, killing scores of people. On Friday, amid countrywide fuel shortages at gas stations as the government attempts to stem widespread fuel theft, this particular section of pipeline had come back into service after being offline for nearly four weeks when somebody punctured the line again.
Hundreds showed up at the spigot, carrying plastic jugs and covering their faces with bandanas. A few threw rocks and swung sticks at soldiers who tried to shoo them away. Some fuel collectors brought their children along.
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Tlahuelilpan is a largely agrarian community located 90 minutes by car from the capital and just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the state-run Tula oil refinery.
It's surrounded by verdant alfalfa fields and power plant stacks and is reasonably affluent by rural Mexican standards.
Hidalgo state data shows about half the community lives in moderate poverty, in line with the national average.
At first the gasoline leak was manageable, locals say, emitting a tame fountain of fuel that allowed for filling small buckets at a time. But as the crowd swelled to more than 600, people became impatient.
That's when a man rammed a piece of rebar into a patch, according to Irma Velasco, who lives near the alfalfa field where the explosion took place, and gasoline shot 20 feet (6 meters) into the air, like water from a geyser.
A carnival atmosphere took over. Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners. Families and friends formed human chains and guard posts to stockpile containers with fuel.
For nearly two hours, more than a dozen soldiers stood guard on the outskirts of the field, warning civilians not to go near. Officials say the soldiers were outnumbered and their instructions were to not intervene.
Only a week earlier, people in a different town had beaten some soldiers who tried to stop them from gorging on state-owned fuel.
The lure of free fuel was irresistible for many, they came like moths to a flame, parking vehicles on a nearby road.
The smell of gas grew stronger and stronger as thousands of barrels spewed. Those closest to the gusher apparently became delirious, intoxicated by fumes. The night filled with an eerie mist, a mixture of cool mountain air and fine particles of gasoline.
The disaster came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day.
The crackdown has led to fuel scarcity at gas stations throughout the country due to shifts in distribution, both licit and illicit.