MEXICO CITY — The death toll in a massive fire at an illegally tapped pipeline in Mexico rose to 89 Monday as more of the injured have died at hospitals.
Health Secretary Jorge Alcocer said 51 victims severely burned in the fire were still in hospitals, two of them in Galveston, Texas.
The victims were gathering gasoline from an illegal pipeline tap in the central state of Hidalgo on Friday when the gas ignited, littering an alfalfa field with charred bodies.
The government reported Monday that an astonishing total of 14,894 such illegal taps had been found in 2018, an average of about 41 per day nationwide.
Hidalgo was the state with the highest number of such taps, with 2,121. The fire occurred in the small farming town of Tlahuelilpan, where 38 such taps were found in 2017 and 23 in 2018.
The fire occurred on a 14-inch underground steel pipeline that had been drilled, tapped and patched before.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Mexico's fuel ducts are antiquated and decaying.
"These pipelines haven't been changed in more than 30 years, with thousands of illegal taps, patched-up pipelines without the capacity to carry fuel," he said Monday. "That is why it was decided to expand delivery with tanker trucks."
He said the government has signed contracts to buy 571 gas tanker trucks, which would be operated by the army. Civilian drivers have been recruited, but are now living at army bases, waiting for the trucks to arrive.
Lopez Obrador said he hopes to pay for some of the trucks by selling off the fleet of presidential and bodyguard vehicles which he has refused to use, as part of his government austerity plan.
Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries while shutting off pipelines where taps were detected.
The pipeline shutdowns have resulted in fuel shortages and long lines at gas stations, something that might have swelled the number looking to gather illegal gas in the field where the fire broke out.
Tlahuelilpan resident Arely Calva Martinez said her brother, Marco Alfredo Calva, had been in the field on Friday and still hasn't been found. About 57 of the charred bodies were so badly burned they couldn't be recognized.
Calva Martinez said Marco, a teacher, needed gas to drive 1 1/2 hours each day to his job as a teacher.
"They didn't have gas because the gas stations weren't selling any, and he needed to get to work," said Calva Martinez. "I believe that if the gas stations had been selling gas, a lot of those people wouldn't have been there," she said of the victims.