Mystery surrounds blast at Mexico oil giant Pemex that killed 33

 

McClatchy Newspapers

The mystery intensified Friday over a huge explosion a day earlier at the headquarters of Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, a company vital to the nation’s economic health and at the heart of a fierce debate over energy resources.

The toll from the blast at mid-afternoon on Thursday climbed to 33 dead and 121 people injured, according to government officials.

Emilio Lozoya Austin, director general of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, as the company is commonly known, said in a brief interview with McClatchy that authorities had not discarded any possible avenue of investigation into the blast, but put off questions about whether it could have been sabotage.

“Speculating whether it is an accident or not is not my priority right now,” said Lozoya, who rushed back from a trip to Singapore after the explosion occurred. “What we need now is the solidarity of the community.”

The blast took place shortly before 4 p.m. local time in a landmark complex that comprises Pemex’s administrative headquarters. A high-rise tower of more than 50 stories is at the center of the complex, and three 13-story buildings and several others are adjacent. Some 10,000 people labor in the complex each workday.

It was in one of the 13-story buildings, known as B-2, where the blast shattered the afternoon calm as hundreds of employees returned from lunch or prepared to leave for the day. The explosion heavily damaged four floors of the B-2 building, where 200 to 250 people work, and “collapsed some of these floors, and therefore the loss of human life has been very important and tragic,” Lozoya said.

Lozoya said most Pemex workers would return to their jobs at the complex after a national holiday Monday.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “The Pemex tower, the big building, is not affected at all. Pemex is operating, is producing 2.55 million barrels per day, more than 6 million cubic feet of gas. Our operations are up and running.”

Speculation on what triggered the blast ranged from a natural gas buildup or an electrical malfunction, to sabotage. Many Mexicans seemed doubtful a satisfactory explanation would ever be offered.

Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies held a minute of silence for the victims on Friday and issued a call for “the rapid explanation of the facts.”

In a sign of the jittery nerves following the lethal explosion, security experts swept the legislature, known as San Lazaro, for possible threats prior to the session.

Pemex, created in 1938 with the nationalization of foreign oil companies, is the second largest company in Latin America, after Brazil’s Petrobras.

It is a ubiquitous presence in Mexico due to its monopoly on retail sales of gasoline through its 46,000 or so stations. It is also a symbol of Mexican pride in state ownership of energy resources, until recently a third rail of politics.

But frustration is rising at inefficiency, poor maintenance and falling production at Pemex, which finances government spending through its earnings.

“Pemex can’t continue operating in the same way it’s been operating in past years,” said Alberto Islas, a security analyst with the crisis management firm Risk Evaluation, referring to lethal industrial accidents.

An explosion at a Pemex gas facility near the city of Reynosa on the Texas border killed 30 people in September, and no full report was ever released.

“Three months later, we still don’t have any ‘causa raiz’ (root cause) identified,” said George Baker, publisher of Mexico Energy Intelligence, a Houston-based report.

Gangsters also feed off Pemex. In one six-month period in 2012, crime syndicates stole more than 1.8 million barrels of oil from the company in more than 800 incidents, many of them involving illegal taps on pipelines.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came to office two months ago, has pledged to open the languishing energy sector to private investment, perhaps through a constitutional reform to ditch a ban on direct foreign participation. The powerful oil workers union, set up by the now-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is opposed to many facets of the reform.

Pena Nieto and a steady stream of cabinet-rank officials toured the blast site and the hospitals that were tending to the scores of injured. Also appearing amid the rubble were the chiefs of the army, navy and national intelligence agency.

“It’s a national security facility, one of the most important in the country even though it isn’t an industrial site,” said Christian Ehrlich, director of intelligence for Riskop, a Monterrey-based intelligence firm.

Ehrlich urged caution in analyzing the blast, but noted: “At the beginning of each administration, sometimes there are events that could be seen as a ‘show of force.’”

Small clandestine armed groups have attacked Pemex installations in the past. One of them, the People’s Revolutionary Army, or EPR for its Spanish initials, claimed to be behind a number of pipeline bombings half a decade ago. The group issued a statement late Thursday denying any link to the latest explosion.

Still, the more that Pena Nieto and other government officials urged the citizenry to desist from speculating about the cause of the blast, the more social media pulsated with talk that sabotage might have been involved.

“The tragedy of the Pemex tower has returned us to the culture of suspicion,” Francisco Garfias wrote in the Excelsior newspaper. “Pena Nieto felt obliged to ask not to speculate over what occurred. It did no good.”

Pemex has been at the center of several accidents with huge numbers of fatalities in the past three decades.

When a Pemex natural gas plant on the outskirts of Mexico City blew up in 1984, more than 500 people were killed in the catastrophic explosions.

On April 22, 1992, in Mexico’s No. 2 city, Guadalajara, gasoline leaked into sewers under the streets, triggering explosions over four hours that killed 252 people, tore up five miles of streets and left 15,000 people homeless.

While Pemex was implicated in the disaster, no full report was ever given.

“I don’t think the outcome was ever shown with any transparency,” Baker said.

Video: Search for Survivors in Mexico City Explosion

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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