MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Fuel thieves tampering with an oil pipeline may have sparked a deadly explosion that turned streets of a Mexican town into an inferno that killed 28 people on Sunday, officials said.
Oil spilling from a breached pipeline burst into a fireball that destroyed homes and cars before dawn in San Martin Texmelucan, a small community in the state of Puebla about 50 miles east of Mexico City.
“Several streets were flooded with fuel. With a spark, there was a river of fire,” said Valentin Meneses, interior minister of the state of Puebla.
Photos and video from the scene showed burned-out homes, charred vehicles and scorched ground.
Pemex, the state oil monopoly that owns the pipeline, said fuel thieves could have touched off the deadly blast that was quickly brought under control by firefighters.
“We are not discounting mechanical problems but, on the other hand, we have had problems with illegal taps this year including along that stretch” of pipe, said Pemex chief Juan Jose Suarez.
Fuel theft is rampant in the Pemex network and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fuel have been stolen in recent years, the company has said.
President Felipe Calderon called for an investigation to determine who was responsible, his office said. Late Sunday afternoon, Calderon visited the blast site, chatted with survivors and promised federal help for the town.
Pemex was alerted to trouble in the pipeline when a pumping station reported a sudden drop in pressure and halted the flow of oil, the company said in a statement.
“Minutes later, (we) detected a fire in two of those ducts,” Pemex said.
The explosion and ensuing fire clouded the town in smoke as soldiers arrived to help firefighters and rescue teams.
Among the dead there were 13 children, while 52 people were injured, officials said. The explosion destroyed 32 houses and damaged more than 80 more, the officials said.
Reporting by Patrick Rucker and Armando Tovar; Editing by Anthony Boadle