MAC/20: Mines and Communities

MEXICO

Published by MAC on 2007-09-11

MEXICO

Mine Explosives Blow Up, 28 Dead

By JUAN MONTANO, Associated Press

11th September 2007

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico -- A truck carrying ammonium nitrate to a mine caught fire after a highway crash and blew up, killing at least 28 people and injuring some 150, state and federal officials reported Monday. Authorities said two trucks smashed into each other Sunday night on a busy highway in northern Mexico, drawing a crowd of curious onlookers as well as a small army of police, soldiers, emergency officials and journalists.

Shortly after the crowd arrived, the wreckage caught fire, and the ammonium nitrate exploded, sending a ball of fire into the sky that consumed nearby cars and left a 10-by 40-foot crater in the road.

Ernesto Mata Castillo, a doctor who helped victims of the initial crash, said Monday that the explosion of the apparently unmarked truck was "the kind of thing I have only seen on television, in war zones."

"I saw pieces of the truck flying through the air all over the place," said Mata Castillo, who was driving on the highway about 125 miles southwest of the U.S. border where the accident occurred. Officials said they did not know what caused the initial crash.

The local police director, Rodolfo Riquejo, said the majority of those killed and injured were families returning home after spending Sunday at some nearby swimming pools. The force of the blast blew out the windows of a passenger bus about a quarter-mile away.

Authorities had earlier placed the death toll at 34, but the governor of the border state of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, said only 28 bodies had been officially recovered. Authorities had earlier acknowledged that some bodies, difficult to identify, had been counted twice.

The dead included three newspaper reporters from the nearby city of Monclova who were covering the highway wreck, said Luis Horacio de Hoyos of the Coahuila state Attorney General's Office.

It was unclear whether the driver of the truck carrying ammonium nitrate was killed. Authorities were investigating reports that he might have fled the scene.

The truck had picked up 25 tons of ammonium nitrate from an Orica Ltd. explosives plant in Monclova and was heading to a mine in the southwestern state of Colima, said a federal police official, Elias Prieto. He did not say which mine. Officials at Orica's offices in Monclova did not return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment. The Australia-based company is the world's largest explosives maker, with operations in 50 countries.

Sunday's explosion, just a few hours' drive from the Texas border, comes amid an angry debate in the United States over the safety of Mexican trucks, some of which are now being allowed to carry cargo throughout the U.S.

Over the opposition of some Americans, a new North American Free Trade Agreement program begun over the weekend lets Mexican trucks that have received prior approval cross the border and drive anywhere in the U.S. Previously, Mexican trucks were limited to a 25-mile band along the border.

But Randy Grider, editor of Truckers News magazine, noted Mexican trucks loaded with hazardous materials are not included in the new program. "I think it would be a very long time before the border would open to hazardous loads," he said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the federal government would work with local authorities to provide help after the explosion. "I want to send my heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in this horrible accident," he said in New Delhi, India, where he was attending the inauguration of a museum exposition.

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