32 die in Mexico oil company office building blast

By Michael Weissenstein

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 1 2013 1:24 p.m. MST

Rescue workers and firefighters an injured person after an explosion at an adjacent building to the executive tower of Mexico's state-owned oil company PEMEX, in Mexico City, Thursday Jan. 31, 2013.

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.

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. Virtually all have hit its petroleum infrastructure, not office buildings.

"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."

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. "These are definitely issues that we'll take up again when the new energy reform comes up."

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 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.

Marco Franco Hernandez, a national rescue coordinator for the Mexican Red Cross, told The Associated Press that there was still a possibility of pulling a small number of victims out of the rubble, and rescuers were trying to maintain optimism that someone could be pulled out alive.

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.

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