Mexico plant blast death toll rises to 24

Twenty-four people have died after a leak caused a deadly petrochemical plant blast, and the death toll could still rise, Mexican oil giant Pemex says.

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It is the latest in a series of fatal accidents to batter the company.

Pemex chief executive O Jose Antonio Gonzalez Anaya, who travelled to the site of Wednesday’s blast near the port of Coatzacoalcos, one of Pemex’s top oil export hubs, told local television it was unclear what caused the accident.

The massive explosion at the facility’s chlorinate 3 plant in the Gulf state of Veracruz also injured 136 people, 13 of them seriously.

Another 18 people were unaccounted for, and one badly damaged part of the plant had yet to be scoured.

“We know there was a leak, what we don’t know is why, but everything points to an accident,” Gonzalez Anaya said.

He shared an updated death toll at a press conference late on Thursday, adding that remediation of the site could take up to a year. He denied the blast was tied to the economic problems of Pemex, which is trying to stem sliding output and slash costs as it creaks under the pressure of low crude prices.

The sharp odour of ammonia filled the air and the plants’ turbines still streamed grey smoke on Thursday afternoon, where local and municipal police, as well as marines, blocked the entrance to the facility.

Most officials wore blue face masks to protect against the fumes, while family members crowded around, their faces uncovered, demanding more information on missing relatives and at times throwing objects at the officials or pushing them.

Others held hands and prayed for the missing and dead.

“We are desperate because no one is coming out to show their face,” said Ancelma Cordero, 49, whose 21-year-old brother is one of the missing and has not responded to his mobilephone.

She said she had been waiting since the prior night and her head was starting to hurt.

“They told us we were breathing toxins and we should leave,” she said of authorities. “But … if we leave, they could make the bodies disappear.”

The blast occurred at a vinyl petrochemical plant that is a joint venture between Pemex’s petrochemical unit and majority owner Mexican plastic pipe-maker Mexichem. Pemex operates the larger petrochemical complex where the plant is located, known as Pajaritos.

In February, a fire killed a worker at the same plant, the latest in a litany of safety disasters that have plagued the state oil giant.

In 2013, at least 37 people were killed by a blast at Pemex’s Mexico City headquarters, and 26 people died in a fire at a natural gas facility in northern Mexico in September 2012.

A 2015 fire at its Abkatun Permanente platform in the oil-rich Bay of Campeche affected oil output and cost the company up to $US780 million.