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Death toll climbs to 32 in blast at Mexico's Pemex headquarters

February 01, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY -- Rescue workers early Friday pulled more bodies from the ruins left by a huge blast at the headquarters of Mexico’s state oil monopoly, while officials remained tight-lipped about what caused the deadly explosion.

The death toll climbed to 32, including 20 women and 12 men, Emilio Lozoya, the director of Petroleos de Mexico, or Pemex, said at a news conference Friday morning.

More than 100 people were injured, some badly, and an undisclosed number were still missing. One man wearing a Pemex uniform was also rescued alive before dawn Friday and walked away under his own power.

The blast on Thursday afternoon at an administrative building adjacent to the 54-story Pemex Tower west of downtown Mexico City caught workers as they were quitting for the day, timing that undoubtedly contributed to a high number of casualties. Employees and others were crushed when parts of the first three floors of the building collapsed or were heavily damaged by a blast that authorities say originated in a basement garage.

Lozoya, who rushed back to Mexico from a business trip in Asia, joined other top officials in discouraging speculation about the cause of the devastating explosion.

“The investigation is very complex,” he said. “Deaths of this magnitude cannot be explained in a few hours.”

He said international experts had already joined counterparts from the attorney general’s office, the military and the nation’s leading university in attempting to pinpoint whether the blast was deliberate sabotage or a tragic accident.

Late Thursday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, was asked point-blank if the disaster was a terrorist attack. He responded that “it would be irresponsible, very irresponsible, without all the elements” to say one way or another. He was flanked by top military leaders, a display interpreted by some commentators as a sign that the blast was no mere accident. 

Separately, President Enrique Peña Nieto said: “I have no, no, no conclusive report” about what triggered the blast.

Lozoya said recovery operations at the site had gone on through the night and would continue indefinitely. Rescue teams were digging, at times haltingly because of fears of shifting rubble, through tons of mangled concrete, glass and metal at the massive complex, where thousands of people worked.

Lozoya said Pemex’s daily production of roughly 2.5 million barrels of crude would not be interrupted.

Pemex has been a target in the past of violent drug traffickers who kidnapped oil field workers and stole large quantities of oil and gas that Pemex pumps in the Mexican gulf states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. Radical groups have also targeted Pemex facilities with minor sabotage in the past.

The company has also been plagued by poor maintenance, corruption, weak operational oversight and mysterious "accidents" in plants and other installations over the years.

Thursday’s explosion came amid a raging debate over government efforts to reform and modernize the powerful but troubled conglomerate. Peña Nieto is pushing a major energy reform that would open Pemex up to private and foreign investment -- long a taboo here.

Supporters say change is crucial to sustain and increase oil production, but many Mexicans, including many Pemex workers, reject any outside intervention.

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