MEXICO CITY, Oct 24 (Reuters) A fierce storm killed four Mexican oil workers and helicopter rescue teams were today searching for several still missing in rolling seas after they fled an offshore rig damaged by 25-foot waves.
The bad weather shut Mexico's top three oil exporting ports in the crude-rich Gulf of Mexico for a second day, suspending most of the country's oil shipments to the United States. Port officials saw it unlikely they would reopen before tomorrow.
State-owned oil monopoly Pemex said exports would not be hit 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 no chance ships can get in. 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 yesterday morning as a severe cold front brought stormy seas and high winds.
Temperatures plunged as far away as Mexico City.
Huge waves and strong winds late yesterday caused two offshore drilling rigs to knock together, causing pipes on one of them to start leaking oil and natural gas, Pemex said.
The 81 workers on the damaged platform -- located in the Kab oil field in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico -- jumped off into emergency life rafts, but only around 75 of them had been located by Wednesday morning.
Javier Delgado, a Pemex spokesman in the Gulf coast city of Ciudad del Carmen, said the death toll had risen by mid-morning to four, from the initial two, as improving weather conditions aided rescue teams searching in two helicopters.
LASHING WINDS Some workers may have fallen into the sea as 80 mph winds lashed the platform, Pemex Chief Executive Jesus Reyes Heroles said late yesterday. ''We are still working ... to rescue those who were in the water. The weather has not helped,'' he told Mexican television.
He described the damaged platform, 20 miles (32 km) from the port of Dos Bocas, as minor in terms of production but said natural gas was still leaking from its well.
Mexico is a top three supplier of crude oil to the United States, which takes around 80 percent of its southern neighbor's oil exports.
Officials said ships stopped leaving the ports early yesterday and could not say when conditions would improve.
Pemex, which has exported an average of 1.708 million barrels of oil per day so far this year, often has to deal with rerouting or rescheduling oil shipments to avoid the storms and hurricanes that hit 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.'' Reuters AE DB2356