Mexico official says deadly Pemex blast caused by gas

MEXICO CITY -- The blast that destroyed part of the headquarters of Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, killing at least 37 people and injuring dozens, was caused by an accumulation of gas ignited possibly by an electrical spark, the attorney general said Monday.

Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said the usual telltale signs of a bomb, such as a crater, splintered steel and explosives residue, did not turn up when civilian, military and foreign investigators surveyed the scene of the disaster.

In addition, he said, none of the dead were dismembered nor had severe eardrum damage -- typical results of a bomb. The only victims with burns were three workers whose bodies were found in the basement where the explosion occurred, and their injuries were gas burns, he said.


Those three bodies were recovered Saturday and Sunday, probably the last victims to be found from the Thursday blast, which hit at quitting time and collapsed or heavily damaged four floors in a main building in the headquarters of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. More than 120 people were injured.

Murillo said the explosion was “diffused” rather than centered in one spot, as a bomb would typically be, and was “slow, horizontal and perfectly defined, all characteristics of an explosion of gas.”

The blast pushed the administration building’s floors upward, and then they came crashing down, the principal cause for so much death, he said in a Monday night news conference.

Traces of methane gas were discovered in the area of the explosion, Murillo said, although he did not explain how it built up nor why it had not been detected.

In the basement, the three workers who were killed were from an outside company that was hired to perform maintenance of boilers and other repairs. One may have turned on a jury-rigged light that sparked the explosion, Murillo said.

The government’s explanation of what happened came 100 hours after one of the most serious disasters in Pemex history and was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism.

Pemex has a long, troubled history of shoddy maintenance, rampant corruption and lax security. Speculation about the cause of the blast has run the gamut from tragic industrial accident to deliberate sabotage aimed at destroying sensitive documents or derailing efforts of the new government to open the long-protected state monopoly to private and foreign investment.

The massive oil exporter has suffered numerous accidents or acts of sabotage over the years, but never has there been a deadly incident of this magnitude at its corporate heart in Mexico City.

The death toll from Thursday’s blast climbed to 37 Monday with the death in hospital of an injured woman.


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