Mexico pipeline explosion killed 89, Pemex defends response

By Adriana Barrera
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Residents look at pictures of people missing after an explosion of a fuel pipeline ruptured by oil thieves, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan

Residents look at pictures of people missing after an explosion of a fuel pipeline ruptured by oil thieves, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A gasoline pipeline explosion in central Mexico last week killed at least 89 people, the country's health minister said on Monday, while an official with the state-owned oil company defended its response to the leak.

There were also 51 people injured, Health Minister Jorge Alcocer told a morning news conference. Friday's pipeline blast happened after hundreds of people has rushed to collect fuel from the gushing pipe.

Over the weekend, a series of possible missteps by the current government became clear, from the delay in shutting off the pipeline, to relatives saying fuel shortages caused by the government's anti-theft policy attracted people to the leak.

Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz said that any negligence by authorities is being investigated and that officials involved would be called in to answer questions this week.

"It's a fundamental issue, the chronology of the events must become absolutely clear."

A Pemex engineer told a news conference on Monday that at first the leak was just a "small puddle" but later grew into a "fountain." Within 20 minutes of that assessment, the engineer said, the company was able to "take actions."

It was not clear if those actions included shutting off the flow of fuel in the pipeline.

Pemex Chief Executive Octavio Romero said his team had followed protocol, though he would not confirm or deny if there was negligence or corruption related to the delay in closing the pipeline.

"Everything will be looked at," he said.

(Reporting by Adriana Barrera and Noe Torres; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Nick Zieminski)