MEXICO CITY – The death toll from the blast caused by an illegal pipeline tap in Hidalgo, a state in central Mexico, has risen to 79, officials said on Sunday.
“We have added six deaths to the 73 reported earlier and can confirm that 79 Mexicans have died due to the explosion,” Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said in a press conference.
The six deaths occurred at the hospital where victims of the huge explosion in the small town of Tlahuelilpan were being treated.
Of the 81 people hospitalized following the blast on Friday evening, 66 are still undergoing treatment for burns, Alcocer said, adding that 12 others have died, two were released by doctors and one person made the decision to leave the hospital.
Recently appointed Attorney General Alejandro Gertz said the cause of the blast has not been determined.
“The force of the blast was such that, basically, the only thing left was the land, which investigators are examining along with statements from eyewitnesses,” Gertz said.
The explosion was caused by an illegal pipeline tap and many of the injured suffered severe burns, officials said.
Hundreds of people had gathered near the pipeline to collect fuel after thieves drilled a hole in the duct.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been waging a battle against the illegal trade in stolen fuel since taking office late last year, a crackdown that has caused widespread shortages at service stations.
Stealing fuel from pipelines owned by state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and re-selling it on the black market has become a major criminal enterprise in Mexico.
Theft of fuel from pipelines cost Mexico some $3.4 billion last year, the government says.
Since his Dec. 1 inauguration, Lopez Obrador has launched an all-out fight against this crime.
The president has deployed thousands of security forces members to bolster security at pipelines.
The administration also adopted a change in Pemex’s method for shipping gasoline and diesel from refineries to urban distribution centers, opting to transport more fuel via tanker trucks instead of pipelines.
The change has caused severe supply problems in at least 10 states and Mexico City, and led to the closing of service stations, panic purchases and attempts to sabotage pipelines.