In this image provided by the Secretary of National Defense, soldiers guard in the area near an oil pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. 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. 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. (Secretary of National Defense via AP)

The Latest: Death toll rises to 73 in Mexico pipeline blast

January 19, 2019 - 5:09 pm

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (AP) — The Latest on a pipeline fire in Mexico (all times local):

7:00 p.m.

Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad says the death toll from an explosion at a punctured pipeline in central Mexico has risen to 73, while the number of injured stands at 74.

Forensic experts continue to comb the site for remains, many of which were reduced to ashes. At least 54 bodies have yet to be identified. Dozens of family members have gathered at the site hoping to find loved ones since the gusher of gasoline burst into a fireball Friday evening.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he will reinforce security along the country's pipeline network, if necessary, but that pipelines remain the most efficient and cost-effective way to distribute fuel.

His administration has been transporting more fuel via trucks over the past three weeks in an attempt to dismantle a sophisticated network of fuel theft that costs state oil company Pemex $3 billion a year. The battle against gas theft has led to long lines at the pump and gasoline scarcity in much of the country.

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5:30 p.m.

The death toll has risen to 71 from a grisly explosion at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico that occurred amid government efforts to curb widespread fuel theft.

Ernesto Sierra, a representative for families of the victims at the accident site, says five more bodies_just bones_have been found half-buried inside a pit were gasoline had pooled around the fissure in the pipeline.

Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad confirmed the updated body count in an interview with Mexico's ForoTV.

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2:30 p.m.

Latin American governments are expressing their condolences after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap in Mexico, killing at least 66 people.

The government of Chile said in a statement Saturday that it mourns the tragedy and stands in "firm solidarity with the government and people of Mexico."

It also offered to help Mexican authorities in any way needed.

Argentina's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent condolences for the victims and said it hoped for the speedy recovery of the wounded.

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1:30 p.m.

A local of Mexico's Hidalgo state says civilians ignored soldiers' warnings to stay clear of a geyser of gasoline that later exploded, killing at least 66 people.

Gerardo Perez Gutierrez said: "We're stubborn."

Perez said he returned Saturday to the scorched field where the massive fireball erupted at the illegal pipeline tap.

He tried to see if he could recognize any bodies, but only a handful of the remains still had skin. Dozens of corpses were burned to the bone.

Perez says he and his son also bypassed the soldiers Friday. But as he neared the spurting fuel, he was overcome with a sense of foreboding.

"Let's go," he recalls telling his son. "This thing is going to explode."

The pair ran without looking back, he says.

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1 p.m.

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio says 25 military personnel arrived on the scene Friday before a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap.

He said Saturday the personnel witnessed at least 600 civilians congregating around a gusher of fuel shooting 6 meters (20 feet) into the air.

Locals were warned to keep away, but soldiers did not intervene because they were outnumbered.

Cresencio says there are 50 soldiers stationed every 20 kilometers (12 miles) along the duct. They patrol 24 hours a day.

But the soldiers have been ordered not to engage with fuel thieves out of fear that an escalation could result in the shootings of unarmed civilians or soldiers being beaten by a mob.

Cresencio said: "We don't want this sort of confrontation."

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12:45 p.m.

Pemex Chief Executive Octavio Romero says there have been at least 10 perforations of pipelines over the past 90 days near the site in central Mexico where an explosion occurred Friday.

He said Saturday that one of those perforations resulted in a fire that took 12 hours to extinguish on Dec. 18.

Romero also said the pipeline that exploded in the town of Tlahuelilpan was punctured 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the company's Tula refinery.

He said an estimated 10,000 barrels of premium gasoline rushed toward the rupture point with 20 kilograms of pressure.

Romero added that the pipeline is "a very important duct for fuel distribution in the country" and it had been offline since Dec. 23.

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9 a.m.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says the attorney general's office will investigate an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico that killed 66 and wounded dozens of others.

At an early morning press conference he said that the office will open an investigation to determine whether the explosion was intentional — caused by an individual or group — or whether the fireball occurred due to the inherent risk of clandestine fuel extraction from ducts.

Lopez Obrador called on townspeople to give testimony not only about Friday's events in Hidalgo, but about the entire black market chain, including who punctures the pipelines, who informs locals about collecting fuel in containers, and how fuel is then put to personal use or sold.

He said: "I believe in the people, I trust in the people, and I know that with these painful, lamentable lessons, the people will also distance themselves from these practices."

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7:45 a.m.

Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad says the death toll from a pipeline explosion in central Mexico has risen to 66.

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 (100 kilometers) 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 Lopez Obrador's fight against the $3 billion per-year illegal fuel theft industry.

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