Ground Shakes, then Gas Pipeline Explodes
REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) — Esteban Vazquez Huerta felt the ground suddenly shake as he worked on pipes at a natural gas plant near the U.S. border, then a pipeline just 300 yards away exploded in boiling flames higher than a three-story home.
Two workers rushed past him fleeing the blaze, and Vazquez sprinted after them only to be knocked to the ground by a second blast, he recalled Wednesday. He scrambled back to his feet and scaled a wall to escape the inferno that killed at least 29 and injured 46 fellow workers.
Officials from the state-owned company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said that an "accidental leak" appeared to have caused Tuesday's deadly blasts and that there were no signs so far of sabotage. Four Pemex workers ranging in age from 28 to 44 were among the dead, and the rest were reported to be employees of contractors.
Federal investigators arrived on the scene Wednesday and began interviewing workers to try to determine what caused the disaster that left charred storage tanks and a mound of tangled steel.
Executives said a valve apparently failed as workers performed routine testing where pipelines from gas wells in the Burgos basin converge near the border with Texas. The plant outside the border city of Reynosa distributes the gas into a processing plant next door that produces fuel for domestic use.
Vazquez, 18, who escaped the blaze unharmed, did not mention an alarm going off, and Pemex officials have not said whether an alarm system was in place.
The facility's perimeter walls, topped with razor wire as a security measure in a country that has seen thieves, saboteurs and drug gangs target oil installations, presented an obstacle for Vazquez and other workers as they fled.
"We had to climb the wall from that side because the fire, the heat was reaching us," Vazquez said 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 wrong, said Vazquez, a worker for contracting firm IANSA. He said the ground shook under him and then the fire erupted.
Hospital officials said some workers with serious burns were moved to Monterrey, 140 miles southwest of Reynosa, which is across from McAllen, Texas. Dr. Arturo Justiniani, director of a Mexican Institute of Social Security hospital, said local hospitals lacked enough beds for those injured.
"We don't have memory of another event of this kind," he said.
At the children's hospital near the plant, the deputy medical director, Dr. Jaime Urbina Rivera, said he received nine injured workers with first- and second-degree burns covering 10 percent to 40 percent of their bodies. The first victim drove his own vehicle to the hospital, and the rest arrived in ambulances, he said.
Outside the regional federal prosecutor's office, local funeral home workers paced the shade-less sidewalk through the afternoon. Inside, family members tried to identify husbands, brothers and sons from photographs of remains. Some relatives emerged from the high-walled compound with tear-filled eyes to be embraced by family. Others left without being able to identify a loved one, instead leaving a blood sample in hopes of making a DNA match.
Gustavo Cruz said his 31-year-old brother, Jaime Cruz, died in the arms of another family member who worked at the plant. "He was very happy" working there.
Enrique de la Fuente, 20, came to see if he could find any information about his missing brother, Manuel Homero de la Fuente, whose name did not appear on the list of 17 workers still hospitalized.
"We already saw the photos (of the dead) here and he doesn't show up," de la Fuente said of his brother.
Both brothers work for IANSA, but de la Fuente said he was at a different site when the pipeline exploded. He said his brother had worked at the gas plant for a year and Tuesday was his first day back from vacation.
The Mexican Attorney General's Office sent more than 20 investigators into the site, which was closed to the press. The country's National Human Rights Commission also opened an investigation.
President Felipe Calderon said the situation could have far worse had the fire spread to the adjacent gas-processing plant.
"The timely response by oil workers, firefighters 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 president sent condolences to the victims' relatives and vowed to make sure those injured receive help.
The blast forced the closure of the gas wells in the Burgos field, and Energy Secretary Jordy Herrera instructed Pemex to bring in natural gas from elsewhere to mitigate what will be lost by the wells' closure. Herrera visited the site Wednesday.