Chaos and death after the explosion at Pemex

By Oswaldo Mejía

Note from the editor:

Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) is the company which controls all the production and selling of all petroleum products in Mexico since 1938. It is the largest company in Mexico and it operates as a paraestatal company, which means that it works for the government’s purposes but without forming part of the public administration. A major explosion in one of its buildings left 37 deaths. Atención’s reporter in Mexico City, Oswaldo Mejía, talked to some witnesses and relatives of the victims. Here are their testimonies.

On January 31 an explosion rocked the first three levels of building B-2 of the administrative offices of Pemex in Mexico City, resulting in 37 dead and hundreds injured. The official explanation was that an accumulation of methane gas in the basement caused the explosion. However, so far the authorities have not explained the origin of the gas concentration. With doubts, tributes, uncertainty and an unclear financial future for the state-owned petroleum company, victims and witnesses remember the tragedy.

“I was waiting in line to leave after my shift, like every evening, but I decided to leave the line and go to the toilet. It was an evening like any other; we were in line and waiting to check out and the administrative staff was interacting routinely. We didn’t notice anything strange, just the everyday activity: phones ringing, staff walking in the hallways and stairs. Suddenly, an earthquake, a buzz, a terrible roar, and immediately we were without light, and a cloud of smoke filled the facilities. For the moment all was chaos, screaming, running and many employees collapsed on the floor, wounded. It was a miracle that I did not die,” said Alejandra González, who works for Pemex.

Cornelio Hurtado, a friend of one of the victims, narrates his experience: “I had lunch with him. We talked about work and family, simple and everyday things. Who would have thought that it would be the last time we would be together? We agreed to meet after noon, but at six in the afternoon his death had been confirmed. I was confused, incredulous. He and other employees were killed in the explosion, but I still cannot understand how it happened. I am not convinced about the cause of the explosion, and that makes it even more painful. It’s incredible, you know: to date not a single person has been arrested, no one has been found responsible. Someone has to pay for this tragedy. Things do not happen just like that. Awards were handed out to the heroes who helped recover the bodies. On television people wear black bowties and at the beginning of shows and news programs the announcers offer their condolences to the families of the victims. The compensation process continues, but nobody talks about responsibility, and they continue saying it was all an accident, but I know that when 37 people die it is difficult to explain to the family that everything was an accident,” he concluded.

After the explosion, the media broadcast the news and relatives began arriving in search of their loved ones, fearful and desperate. They ran toward the building but were not able to go inside because of the security fence that the Mexican Army, the navy, the federal police and government security personnel mounted outside the site. Some tried, leaning through the spaces between the bars that surrounded the property, to find out information about what exactly had occurred, but all efforts were in vain. Only paramedics and rescuers could be seen, assisting the wounded, some unconscious, bloodied, bruised and covered with dust, lying on the ground.

Carlos Alejandro López Bonetti, one of the trapped workers, managed to call his family despite being trapped under the rubble in the mezzanine. In an interview for Atención, he related how abruptly he felt a jolt followed by a a strange buzzing and an explosion. “I felt like the world was falling apart. Everything was confusion. I could not think clearly. With the rescuers’ help I got out alive.”

Carlos explained that his brother and sister-in-law soon arrived, in answer to his call, but like most people looking for their relatives they could not enter the building. “Thanks to one of the firefighters who heard the appeal of my relatives, who were explaining that it would be faster to reach me because I was answering phone calls, it was possible to find me,” he explained.

According to Enrique Hernández, a Red Cross volunteer, not all those injured had the same fortune. Many of them, unconscious after the blast, did not respond to the calls of rescuers searching for victims among the rubble. “We got together with other rescuers, with dogs, and through speakers we asked the wounded to scream, pound or make any noise so that we could find them; unfortunately, there was only silence, only rubble everywhere, twisted steel,  paper and destroyed machinery.”

The funerals took place over the following days. Rescue operations, cleanup and reconstruction followed their normal course and were gradually suspended. Dozens of reporters waited daily for explanations outside the building, sometimes unsuccessfully. The administrative complex activities returned to normal, but the offerings placed on the outside still draw passersby who stop to see the photographs of the dead, religious messages dedicated to the victims, flower wreaths and crosses lit by candles placed on the sidewalk.

In a report entitled “Reflections on the Incident at the Pemex Headquarters B2 Building,” international energy consultant George Baker warned that the explosion at Pemex can be used as justification for further actions that have little to do with the accident or its consequences.

“As with industrial accidents at Pemex in 2012, 2010, 2007, 1996, 1992 and 1979, in which no officer or member of the management was called to give explanations, it is unlikely that any Pemex manager will be the subject of an investigation that could expose him or her. The investigation will continue until the incident is forgotten,” the consultant said in his report.


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