SAN MARTIN TEXMELUCAN, Mexico – A massive oil pipeline explosion laid waste to parts of a central Mexican city Sunday, incinerating people, cars, houses and trees as gushing crude turned streets into flaming rivers. At least 28 people were killed, 13 of them children, in a disaster authorities blamed on oil thieves.
The blast in San Martin Texmelucan, estimated to have affected 5,000 people in a three-mile radius, scorched homes and cars and left metal and pavement twisted from the intense heat and in some cases burned to ash.
Relatives sobbed as firefighters pulled charred bodies from the incinerated homes, some of the remains barely more than piles of ashes and bones.
At least 52 people were hurt and at least 84 were in shelters after fleeing San Martin, which is about 55 miles east of Mexico City. More than 115 homes were scorched, 30 of them destroyed.
The explosion was apparently caused by thieves trying to steal crude oil, said Valentin Meneses, interior secretary for the state of Puebla, where San Martin is located. Investigators found a hole in the pipeline and equipment for extracting crude, said Laura Gurza, chief of the federal emergency response agency.
“They lost control because of the high pressure with which the fuel exits the pipeline,” she said, adding that the oil began to flow down the city’s streets and into a nearby river.
President Felipe Calderon arrived late Sunday afternoon to talk with displaced people in a shelter and to survey damage on the main street where the fuel exploded. Earlier, he expressed condolences to the families of the dead and his support for those injured and affected. He said the federal government would give its full support in investigating who was responsible and bringing them to justice.
The state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said in a statement that it had shut down the pipeline. Government authorities said the fire was under control by midday, and fires were burning the remaining crude. The area was without electricity or water.
San Martin Texmelucan is a city of about 130,000 people, according to 2005 government figures, where farming is important to the area’s economy, along with a manufacturing sector that makes chemical and petrochemical products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and metals, the city’s website says.
Pemex has struggled with chronic theft, losing as much as 10 percent of all of its product.