26 dead, 46 injured in Mexico pipeline fire

Associated Press
First responders treat a man after an explosion ripped through a gas pipeline distribution center in Reynosa, Mexico near Mexico's border with the United States, Tuesday Sept. 18, 2012. Mexico's state-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex said the fire had been extinguished and the pipeline had been shut off but ten people were killed during the incident. (AP Photo/El Manana de Reynosa)

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REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) — Mexico's state-owned oil company says at least five people are still listed as missing in a pipeline fire that killed 26 workers and injured 46 others at a plant near the U.S. border.

Juan Jose Suarez, director of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company, told local media Wednesday that at least 5 workers have not been seen since the blast. Two of the 46 injured were in serious condition.

President Felipe Calderon said emergency teams' quick reaction prevented a "real catastrophe," by controlling the fire before it reached the massive tanks of a neighboring gas processing plant.

The enormous fire Tuesday hit a distribution center near the U.S. border that handles gas coming in from wells and sends it to a processing plant next door.

"The timely response by oil workers, firefighter and the Mexican Army was able to control the fire relatively quickly and avoid a real catastrophe of bigger proportions and greater damages if the fire had spread to the center for gas processing which is right there," Calderon said in a speech in Mexico City.

The blast and ensuing fire were so powerful they left charred tanks and a mound of tangled steel at the walled plant near the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas.

Officials of Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex, say the blast appeared to have been caused by an accidental leak, and there was no sign so far of sabotage.

The facility had perimeter walls topped with razor wire as a security measure in a country which has seen thieves, saboteurs and drug gangs target oil installations, and that presented an obstacle for plant workers trying to flee.

Esteban Vazquez Huerta, 18, who was inside the plant when the fire occurred, managed to find a gap in the wire, scale a wall and escape. "We had to climb the wall from that side because the fire, the heat was reaching us," Vazquez Huerta said Wednesday as he stood outside the plant, waiting for word of missing co-workers.

Until the final moments before the explosion there was no sign anything was amiss, Vazquez Huerta said. Pemex said workers from contracting firms, such as Vazquez Huerta, and its own employees were performing routine maintenance at the plant, where pipelines from gas wells in Burgos basin converge. The plant sends gas from wells next door to separate liquid hydrocarbons from the gas. The production is for domestic Mexican use.

Vazquez Huerta said that suddenly the pipes where he was working, about 300 to 400 yards (meters) from the explosion, began to sound like they were repressurizing, after being closed for maintenance.

There was a blast and he and two co-workers began running. A second explosion knocked them to the ground, but they got up and continued running. They found a space along the back wall that wasn't topped with razor wire and boosted each other over.

Calderon said the government will carry out an exhaustive investigation of the cause of the fire and that federal prosecutors will open a probe.

The blast forced the closure of the wells and the evacuation of people at ranches and homes within three miles (five kilometers) of the gas facility, which is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southwest of Reynosa.

Pemex initially reported 10 deaths. Later, the death toll was raised to 26, including a man who was run over when he rushed onto a highway running away from the facility.

Company executives said there was a gas leak, followed by an explosion, but the precise cause had not been determined.

"Why there was such leak is something that must be investigated," said Carlos Morales Gil, Pemex's director of exploration and production.

Calderon sent condolences to the victims' relatives and vowed to make sure those injured receive help.

Pipelines carrying gasoline and diesel in Mexico are frequently tapped by thieves looking to steal fuel, and those sometimes cause spills or explosions. But thieves seldom target gas pipelines.

In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for an oil pipeline explosion in a central Mexico city near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children. The blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles (10 kilometers) wide in San Martin Texmelucan.

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