A fiery blast at a Pemex gas pipeline distribution center in Mexico started from an accidental leak, and there was no sign so far of sabotage, officials said in a preliminary report.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the pipeline rose to 29, Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, said Wednesday. At least 46 others were injured, and more are missing.
Juan Jose Suarez, director of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company, said at least five workers are missing since the blast.
President Felipe Calderon said the quick reaction of emergency teams prevented a “real catastrophe,” by controlling the fire before it reached the huge tanks of a neighboring gas processing plant.
The enormous fire Tuesday hit a distribution center near the border with Texas that handles natural gas coming in from wells and sends it to a processing plant next door.
“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.
The plant is near the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas.
The Mexican Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into the explosion Wednesday, sending more than 20 investigators into the site.
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 plant workers trying to flee.
Pemex said workers from contracting firms and its own employees were performing routine maintenance at the plant, where pipelines from gas wells in the Burgos basin converge. The plant feeds gas next door to separate liquid hydrocarbons from the gas. The production is for domestic Mexican use.
One worker said suddenly the pipes where he was working, about 300 to 400 yards from the explosion, began to sound like they were repressurizing, after closing them 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 not topped with razor wire and boosted each other over.
Investigators were interviewing other workers to find out more details that could help determine what caused the leak.
Calderon said the government will carry out an exhaustive investigation of the cause of the fire.
The blast forced the closure of the wells and the evacuation of people at ranches and homes within three miles of the gas facility, which is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southwest of Reynosa.
Pipelines carrying gasoline and diesel in Mexico frequently end up tapped by thieves looking to steal fuel, and those sometimes cause spills or explosions. But thieves seldom target gas pipelines.