February 1, 2013

25 die in Mexico oil company office building blast

Michael Weissenstein and Olga r. Rodriguez / The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — A blast that collapsed the lower floors of a building in the headquarters of Mexico's state-owned oil company, crushing 32 people beneath tons of rubble and injuring 121, is being looked at as an accident, although all lines of investigation remain open, the head of Petroleos Mexicanos said Friday.

click image to enlarge

Firefighters and workers dig for survivors following an explosion at a building next to the 52-story tower of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, in Mexico City on Thursday.

The Associated Press

As hundreds of emergency workers dug through the rubble, the disaster was fueling debate about the state of Pemex, a vital source of government revenue that is suffering from decades of underinvestment and has been hit by a recent series of accidents that have tarnished its otherwise improving safety record.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has pledged to open the oil behemoth to more private and foreign investment, setting off warnings among leftists about the privatization of an enterprise seen as one of the pillars of the Mexican state.

"It seems like, from what experts can observe, is that it was an accident," Pemex Director-General Emilio Lozoya told the Televisa network. "However, no line of investigation will be discounted."

Early signs pointed to a problem in an area that housed electrical and air-conditioning equipment, according to a government official who was not authorized to speak by name. Pemex said in a tweet in the first minutes after the accident it had evacuated the building because of a problem with the electrical system.

Lozoya said the priority remains rescue and recovery, plus attending to the injured and families of those who died as the death toll had risen to 32. He said 52 remained hospitalized and survivors and bodies still may be found in the rubble.

More than 500 firefighters, soldiers and rescue workers dug through chunks of concrete, aided by dogs, trucks and a Pemex crane.

"There is a lot of risk," rescuer German Vazquez Garcia said of working on the site.

The explosion was the worst in more than a decade for Pemex. Last September, an enormous blast killed 30 workers at a pipeline facility in northern Mexico.

That disaster was a major setback to a safety record that had been improving following a series of incidents in the 1980s and 1990s, according to company figures. The number of accidents per million hours worked dropped by more than half, from 1.06 in 2005 to 0.42 in 2010. That is in line with the international average of about 0.43 per million, according to the U.K.-based International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, which does not independently verify company numbers.

But Pemex acknowledged in a report that starting in late 2011, a series of smaller blasts and fires, mainly at refineries and petrochemical plants, had "seriously impacted" its safety rate. It said the rate of injuries per million hours had risen to 0.54.

Before the pipeline blast in Reynosa, Pemex's last big accident was in 2007, when a sudden storm hit an offshore oil rig, killing 22 workers.

Thursday's explosion occurred at about 3:45 p.m., just as the administrative shift was about to end. It hit the basement and three floors, where as many as 250 people work, Lozoya said. The floors collapsed in the 14-story administrative building at the headquarters office complex, which was built starting in the late 1970s. Some 10,000 people work there daily. Lozoya said about 1,700 work in the building affected.

To the untrained observer, the offices appeared to be showing signs of age surprising for the headquarters of a major oil company. The elevators were often out of service or crept slowly between floors. Its bathrooms were dirty and the floors were worn.

Gabriela Espinoza, 50, a Pemex secretary for 29 years, was on the second floor of the tower when she said she heard two loud explosions and a third smaller one.

(Continued on page 2)

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