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 Tuesday, killing at least 22 people and injuring nearly three dozen, authorities said.
Officials at the Citizen Safety Department of Mexico State, which surrounds the capital, did not rule out the possibility the death toll could rise. At least a dozen people remained hospitalized late Tuesday, several of them in critical condition.
Gov. Eruviel Avila said late Tuesday that 22 people were known dead in a letter to Pope Francis, with whom he was supposed to meet at the Vatican on Wednesday. Avila said he was returning to Mexico instead.
The state safety department's spokesman, Cesar Diaz, said emergency workers would continue searching through the night in 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 blast, landing atop the wall of a house and cars parked outside. A number of pigs, goats 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 nearby. "When we ran out, we saw a car on fire and flames everywhere. Smoke was pouring all over the freeway."
"They never thought a car could hit them or an explosion of this magnitude," said Maribel Juarez, the cousin of another family killed in the explosion. "Now we have to bury their coffins and our family members are never going to return."
The driver, Juan Olivares, 36, was heading south from the city of Pachuca to Mexico City in a tractor that was hauling two gas tanks on tandem trailers, said Jose Luis Cervantes, an assistant state prosecutor. He said the vehicle belonged to the Termogas company.
Cervantes said the tractor hit a center divider and broke apart, with one tank flying into a house and exploding, killing 15 people, and another part of a tank hitting a separate house, killing four.
State security officials counted 33 people with various injuries.