Last Friday a gasoline pipeline in central Mexico exploded, creating a huge fireball. The official death toll keeps rising; as of this writing it is listed as 91. Dozens more people were injured.
The blast was caused by the illegal tapping of the pipeline by fuel thieves, who are known in Mexico as huachicoleros. The practice is a common one, and this is not the first such explosion, simply the deadliest.
As I read the earliest reports about the explosion, a question occurred to me: We have gasoline pipelines in the USA — why don’t things like this happen here? I’m certain there are plenty of unscrupulous down-on-their luck rural entrepreneurs who would consider pipeline-tapping as a career, but they don’t seem to take it up (or not in enough numbers to draw media attention, anyway).
Before examining this larger question, let’s consider some of the details about Friday’s explosion and the practice of pipeline theft in Mexico.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles since the story broke, but didn’t hang on to most of the URLs, so much of what I write here will be unsourced. However, this article from MSN is information-rich, and will serve as a good start for those who want to look into the incident. For further details, do an Internet search on “Tlahuelilpan pipeline explosion” — that will turn up plenty of stories.
The petroleum industry in Mexico is state-run, and the company that manages the pipelines is called PEMEX. The gasoline pipeline along which the explosion occurred runs from Tuxpan on the Gulf coast to Mexico City, making a hard left at Tlahuelilpan in Hidalgo State before continuing to the capital.
The pipeline had been tapped previously more than once at the location in Tlahuelilpan. Whenever that kind of thing happens, PEMEX rigs a patch over the breach and continues pumping. Such patches are easier to tap than an unmarred pipe, so the same spots tend to be used over and over again.
The normal practice is to make a fairly small hole so that the flow of gasoline is not excessive and can be readily utilized. However, on the afternoon before the explosion, one of the fuel thieves became impatient and jammed a piece of rebar into the hole to enlarge it, causing a veritable gusher to spout up twenty feet into the air. In videos of the festive occasion the gasoline plume looks like Old Faithful.
Hundreds of people swarmed the site, carrying large plastic containers to collect the gasoline from the ditch around the pipe. It was not the most intelligent thing to do — the air in the immediate vicinity of the geyser was a dense mass of gasoline vapor, awaiting only a tiny spark to trigger a conflagration.
Which is exactly what happened later that evening. Some reports theorize that the synthetic fabric of the clothes worn by the poor people tapping the pipe generated enough static electricity to create the necessary spark. In any case, without any warning a tremendous fireball exploded over and among the crowd.
The moment of the explosion was captured by someone who had been using an infrared-sensitive video camera to record the night’s festivities. Then, in full living color, you can watch the huge plume of smoke and orange flames rise into the night sky while subsidiary fires spread rapidly at ground level. There appear to be little fireballs rushing away from the center of the blast, but when you look closely, you’ll find that they’re people running away from the explosion. Their clothes, arms, legs, and torsos are engulfed in flame. You can also see people try to extinguish some of the human torches that have collapsed onto the ground. (No, I’m not going to embed the video here; it’s too graphic. But you can find it easily with a YouTube search. And those videos are just the ones that YouTube didn’t pull down — imagine what the others must be like.)
The gasoline vapor was so thick before the explosion that some people passed out, overcome by the fumes. One report says a nearby soldier pulled an unconscious man out of the gasoline-filled ditch and dragged him to safety. Some of the survivors reported that they realized the danger of explosion and hurried out of the area before it was too late.
Such was the Tlahuelilpan pipeline explosion on January 18, 2019. Photos from the following morning show the scorched pipeline and nearby field, with neatly-arranged rows of bodies covered by white sheets.
Illegal pipeline-tapping in Mexico has become a growth industry over the past decade. PEMEX’s pipes are laid shallowly, so that digging down two or three feet will expose the pipe. Local entrepreneurs make the tap, with the support of nearby residents who participate in the collection and sale of illicit gasoline.
The graph below uses data from a useful paper (PDF) published by the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in 2017. I found the total number of taps for 2017, but the statistics for 2018 are only available through October. In the latter case I extrapolated the total for 12 months and then appended the numbers for both years to the data set to produce this graphic: