Wednesday, February 6, 2013

At least 33 dead in Mexico City skyscraper explosion

The death toll has risen to 32 in Mexico City after an explosion blasted the lower floors of a skyscraper housing the headquarters of state oil monopoly Pemex.'s Dara Brown reports.

By Kari Huus, Staff Writer, NBC News

The death toll from a powerful explosion in the Mexico City skyscraper complex housing the offices of state oil monopoly Pemex rose to at least 33, company and government officials said Friday.

Twenty men and 12 women were killed, the company said — while 121 were injured, 52 of whom remain in hospital.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto arrived at the Pemex administration complex by helicopter Thursday night to supervise rescue operations, Pemex and the news agency La Prensa reported. Hundreds of Mexican military forces were sent to the complex to "preserve security," officials told newspaper El Universal.

Rescue crews had searched most of the area damaged by the blast by Friday afternoon, said Attorney General Jesus Murillo said. But he added that survivors or more victims could still be found in the most unstable parts, which had not yet been fully checked.

Emilio Lozoya Austin, director general of Pemex, which is short for Petrõleos Mexicanos, told Reuters Friday the the company was "working with the best teams in Mexico and from overseas" to find the cause of the explosion.

He was flying home from a business trip to Asia when the blast occured. He said he extended his condolences "to all the families of Pemex workers who have lost their loved ones."

The explosion took place in the basement garage of the auxiliary building, next to the company's 52-floor tower in a busy commercial and residential area, said Eduardo Sánchez, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

An injured woman is transferred to a stretcher outside the headquarters of state oil giant Pemex in Mexico City on Thursday."They're conducting a tour of the building and the area adjacent to the blast site to verify if there are any still trapped so they can be rescued immediately," Sanchez said Thursday.

A government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said preliminary findings suggested the blast was caused by aged boiler exploding in a building next to the tower, Reuters reported.

The plaster ceiling of the basement collapsed, a spokesman for the local emergency agency said. He described conditions in the tower as "delicate."

The main floor and the mezzanine of the auxiliary building were heavily damaged, along with windows as far as three floors up.

A man who was on the ground floor when the explosion occurred told Forum TV that the first casualties were taken to a clinic in the adjacent office tower, where several thousand people work.

"It shook the building, and then we were evacuated," he said.

Company touted safety record

News of the blast came toward the end of the business day — just a few hours after the company had sent two messages on Twitter celebrating how much it had "reduced our accident rate in recent years," announcing that its "safety indicators" exceeded international standards:

"An explosion took place in the B2 building of the administrative center," Pemex tweeted just after 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET). "There are injuries and damage on the ground floor and mezzanine," it said, promising further information as it became available.

Pemex initially said the building had been evacuated because of a problem with its electricity supply. It then said there had been an explosion, but it didn't give the cause.

Milenio TV via NBC News
The scene at Pemex headquarters in Mexico City on Thursday after an explosion. There was no official explanation for the blast.

Television images showed people being evacuated — some on office chairs and gurneys. Emergency crews loaded people on stretchers into helicopters and airlifted them out of the area.

"The place shook, we lost power and suddenly there was debris everywhere," Cristian Obele told Milenio news network. "Colleagues were helping us out of the building."

Jose Cuellar, a mechanic who works near the complex, said he was repairing a car when an explosion rocked his entire workshop.

"We went to see and saw people coming out injured," Cuella, 45, told El Universal. "Other people were carrying them."

Edgar Zuniga Jr. and M. Alex Johnson of NBC News, Telemundo and Reuters contributed to this report.

Blast that killed 33 in Mexico City skyscraper believed to be an accident, but cause still unknown

Friday, February 1, 2013
By Mark Stevenson And Michael Weissenstein, The Associated Press

Rescue workers carry an injured survivor after an explosion in a building at Mexico's state-owned oil company PEMEX complex, in Mexico City, Thursday Jan. 31, 2013. The explosion killed more than 10 people and injured some 80 as it heavily damaged three floors of the building. According to civil protection and local media some people remained trapped in the debris from the explosion, which occurred in the basement of an administrative building next to the iconic, 52-story tower of Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY - A blast that collapsed the lower floors of a building in the headquarters of Mexico's state-owned oil company, crushing at least 33 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.

 As hundreds of emergency workers dug through the rubble, the company's worst disaster in a decade 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.

Until now, virtually all the accidents had hit its petroleum infrastructure, not its office buildings.

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

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. Pena Nieto has provided few details of the reform he will propose but denies any plan to privatize Pemex.

In a debate on MVS Radio about Pemex Friday morning, Juan Bueno Torio, a congressman from the conservative National Action Party, said Pemex should be granted more budgetary independence as part of the reform, allowing it to better address infrastructure problems that he said have been neglected under government control.

"There are always maintenance problems," he said.

Manuel Bartlett, a senator from the leftist Workers' Party, shot back that Pena Nieto "has been touring the world inviting investors and foreigners to invest in Pemex."

"Privatizing Pemex is taking away the control of the Mexican state and transferring it to private hands," he said.

Less than 24 hours after the accident at Pemex headquarters, early signs pointed to a problem in an area with 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.

A Pemex spokesman said the floors hit by the explosion housed administrative offices.

Pemex and Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said on their Twitter accounts Friday afternoon that the death toll had risen to 33.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera declared three days of mourning, with flags at half-staff and black bunting hung on public buildings.

Lozoya said the priority remains rescue and recovery, plus attending the families of those who died and the injured, which include 52 people who remain hospitalized.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo said Friday afternoon that rescue crews have searched most of the area damaged by the blast but that survivors or more victims could still be found in the most unstable parts, which have not yet been fully checked.

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.

Murillo said experts have "not found any indication of fire."

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.

As part of the federal government, Pemex is entirely responsible for inspecting its own buildings. A Pemex spokesman said the company could not immediately provide information about the affected building's safety record because of the workload generated by the response to the explosion.

Mexico City-based oil analyst David Shields said he was pessimistic that any one particular accident would have a real impact on the broader push for reform.

"What they really do is spark a certain amount of indignation, most of the time they don't result in changes," he said.

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.

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.

"There was a very loud roar. It was very ugly," she said.

Lozoya said Pemex operations continue uninterrupted despite the blast and that the company is producing 2.57 million barrels of oil per day.

Pemex, created as a state-owned company in 1938, has nearly 150,000 employees, according to its website, with $111 billion in sales. Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has made Pemex reform the centre of his platform, with a plan to pump new investment into a company whose profits feed much of Mexico's federal budget, but which has fallen behind other oil companies in production, technology and exploration.


AP writers Katherine Corcoran, Olga R. Rodriguez and Adriana Gomez contributed to this report.

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