Associated Press

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico — People in the town where a gasoline explosion killed at least 79 people say the section of pipeline that gushed fuel has been a habitual gathering site for thieves, repeatedly damaged and patched.

“It was the popular tap,” said Enrique Cerron, 22, who lives nearby. “You could pass by at 11 or 12 in the morning and see people filling up here.”

On Friday, amid countrywide fuel shortages at gas stations as the government tries to stem widespread fuel theft, this section of pipeline came back in service for the first time in nearly four weeks, and somebody punctured the line again. Word quickly spread through the community of 20,000 people that gas was flowing. Come one, come all.

Hundreds showed up at the spigot, carrying plastic jugs. A few threw rocks and swung sticks at soldiers who tried to shoo them away.

At first the gasoline leak was manageable, locals say, emitting a tame fountain of fuel that allowed for filling small buckets at a time. But as the crowd swelled to more than 600, people became impatient.

That’s when a man rammed a piece of rebar into a patch, according to Irma Velasco, who lives near the field where the explosion took place, and gasoline shot 20 feet into the air.

Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners.

Families and friends formed human chains and guardposts to stockpile containers with fuel.

For nearly two hours, more than a dozen soldiers stood guard on the outskirts of the field, warning civilians not to go near. Officials say the soldiers were outnumbered and their instructions were to not intervene.

The smell of gas grew stronger as thousands of barrels spewed. Those closest to the gusher apparently became delirious, intoxicated by fumes. Townspeople stumbled about.

The night filled with an eerie mist, a mixture of cool mountain air and fine particles of gasoline.

Soldiers warned would-be scavengers to stay away. It’s going to explode, they said. And it did.

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