SAN MARTIN TEXMELUCAN, Mexico – A massive oil pipeline explosion lay waste to parts of a central Mexican city Sunday, incinerating people, cars, houses and trees as gushing crude turned streets into flaming rivers. At least 27 people were killed, 12 of them children, in a disaster authorities blamed on oil thieves.

The blast in San Martin Texmelucan, estimated to have affected 5,000 residents in a three-mile radius, scorched homes and cars and left metal and pavement twisted from the intense heat and in some cases burned to ash.

Relatives sobbed as firefighters pulled charred bodies from the incinerated homes, some of the remains barely more than piles of ashes and bones. Officials recovered 26 bodies by late Sunday and had identified 18 of them.

Housewife Zoyla Perez Cortes, 27, said she awoke about 5:30 a.m. to a strange, overpowering smell, like gasoline. Minutes later, her street erupted in flames. Her husband knocked down a wall allowing them to escape their two-story, cement-brick home with their three children.

Her brother-in-law is being treated for burns in a hospital, but she doesn’t know the fate of his wife and two children.

“It was like we were living in an inferno,” she said. “Everything was covered in smoke.”

Aside from the deaths, at least 52 people were hurt and at least 200 were in shelters after fleeing San Martin, which is about 55 miles east of Mexico City. More than 115 homes were scorched, 30 of them destroyed.

The explosion was apparently caused by thieves trying to steal crude oil, said Valentin Meneses, interior secretary for the state of Puebla, where San Martin is located. Investigators found a hole in the pipeline and equipment for extracting crude, said Laura Gurza, chief of the federal Civil Protection emergency response agency.

“They lost control because of the high pressure with which the fuel exits the pipeline,” he said, adding that the oil began to flow down the city’s streets and into a nearby river.