MEXICO CITY -- A natural gas tanker truck lost control, hit a center divider and exploded on a highway lined by homes in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec early yesterday, killing at least 20 people and injuring nearly three dozen, according to the Citizen Safety Department of Mexico State, which surrounds Mexico City.
Officials did not rule out the possibility the death toll could rise more as emergency workers continued sifting through the charred remains of vehicles and homes built near the highway on the northern edge of the metropolis.
Residents pitched in to rescue people from the wreckage of the 5:30 a.m. explosion, crushed and burned cars and shattered homes. Television footage showed plumes of flame shooting out of homes in the pre-dawn darkness.
A huge piece of the truck's gas tank was blown 50 yards by the force of the blast, landing atop the wall of a house and cars parked outside. A number of pigs and other farm animals that were kept on patios were killed.
"It was thunderous sound. I thought we were all going to die," said Rita Enriquez, 42, a housewife who lives near where the blast occurred.
Enriquez said five of her relatives were gravely injured in their concrete slab home along the freeway, though she had no other details as she waited for word outside Magdalena Las Salinas Hospital in Mexico City.
The pre-dawn accident exposed two recurrent public safety issues in Mexico: extremely heavy trucks that are frequently involved in serious accidents, and the construction of improvised homes just feet away from major highways.
Some of the cinder block homes hit by the massive explosion were just steps away from the busy, eight-lane highway. Other homes were mere shacks, built of sheet tin.
The driver, Juan Olivares, 36, was heading to Mexico City from Pachuca, a city to the north in a tractor, hauling two gas tanks, that belonged to a company called Termogas, said Jose Luis Cervantes, assistant prosecutor for the state of Mexico.
Cervantes said the driver may face manslaughter and property damage charges.