Mexico, Oct 25: A storm killed 10 Mexican oil workers fleeing a battered offshore rig, and Navy rescue teams were battling today to reach survivors in two life rafts being tossed in rolling seas.
State-owned oil monopoly Pemex said in a statement that 58 people had been safely rescued in a lifeboat, but a preliminary count showed 10 workers died in the accident at the Kab oil field in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
Exploration and Production Chief Carlos Morales called the accident one of the worst in Pemex's history. The death toll could still rise as bad weather prevents Navy rescue teams from reaching around 24 people hunkered in two other life rafts.
High winds, choppy seas and poor visibility also closed Mexico's main oil ports, cutting off the bulk of the country's crude shipments.
''The rescue operation is going on right now,'' Pemex spokesman Carlos Ramirez said. ''We still can't access (the rafts) or the people inside because the swell is very strong.'' All 81 workers on the Usumacinta drilling platform jumped into emergency rafts as huge waves knocked the platform into an adjacent rig late yesterday, causing crude oil and natural gas pipes to leak. It was feared some had fallen into the sea.
Attempts by rescue crews in eight helicopters and four rescue boats to reach the two stranded life rafts were being thwarted by waves of up to 20 feet. A handful of sailors involved in the rescue were missing.
The bad weather shut Mexico's top three oil exporting ports in the crude-rich Gulf of Mexico for a second day, suspending oil shipments to the United States. Port officials saw it as unlikely they would reopen before tomorrow.
Pemex said US buyers of its oil should not be hurt as it would reschedule the delayed shipments once the storm passed.
It was not evacuating oil platforms or shutting down production as the worst of the bad weather was over.
''The weather is really bad. There is a 99.9 per cent chance that the port will not open today,'' Jorge Rojano, port captain in Dos Bocas, Tabasco, told Reuters by telephone.
Most of Mexico's crude is shipped from the Gulf ports of Dos Bocas, Cayo Arcas and Coatzacoalcos, which were closed on Tuesday morning as a severe cold front brought stormy seas and high winds. Temperatures plunged as far away as Mexico City.
Some of the fleeing workers may have fallen into the sea -- risking hypothermia or drowning in the huge waves -- as 80 mph (130 kph) winds lashed the platform, Pemex chief executive Jesus Reyes Heroles said late yesterday.
''The weather has not helped,'' he told Mexican television.
Reyes Heroles described the damaged platform, 20 miles (32 km) from the port of Dos Bocas, as minor in terms of output.
Mexico is a top three supplier of oil to the United States, which takes around 80 per cent of its southern neighbor's oil exports. Ships stopped leaving port early yesterday and officials could not say when conditions would improve.
The Pacific coast port of Salina Cruz, from which Pemex ships roughly 300,000 barrels per day of crude oil to the US west coast and to Asia, was also closed yesterday due to high winds.
Pemex, which has exported an average of 1.708 million bpd this year, often has to deal with rerouting or rescheduling oil shipments to avoid storms and hurricanes on Mexico's coast.
''For the moment, up until now, there is no impact on exports. Exports are not being affected,'' a Pemex official said, asking not to be named. ''Even though exports are suspended, there is still time to reschedule the shipments.'' Yesterday's storm was not powerful enough to trigger an alert to evacuate Pemex's offshore oil platforms.