Oil workers missing off stormy Mexico coast

September 9, 2011 1:21:26 PM PDT
Mexico's state oil company said Friday it was searching for 10 workers from a Texas-based company who evacuated from a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico ahead of Tropical Storm Nate.

Petroleos Mexicanos said it has two ships searching in the area where the workers, employed by Houston-based Geokinetics Inc., called for help Thursday afternoon after leaving a vessel known as a liftboat, the Trinity II, on an enclosed life raft.

"We're deeply concerned about the incident in the Gulf of Mexico involving our employees and others who had to abandon a disabled liftboat due to conditions brought about by Tropical Storm Nate," said Geokinetics spokeswoman Brenda Taquino. "The safety and rescue of the employees, everyone on the life raft, is a top priority."

Taquino said the company learned Thursday morning that the Trinity II, contracted from Louisiana-based Trinity Liftboat Services LLC, was disabled in the Bay of Campeche because of storm conditions. A liftboat can lower legs to the sea floor and then elevate itself above the water level. This one was being used as a recording vessel and housing for the crew and it was in waters about 25 feet (8 meters) deep.

On board were four crew members who operate the liftboat, three contractors and three employees of Geokinetics, which specializes in seismic studies for the oil and gas industry. Mexican authorities said the majority were foreigners, though it did not say from which countries.

The captain reported they were abandoning the vessel about midday Thursday, and a ship several miles (kilometers) away also reported seeing the crew enter the life raft.

But there has been no communication since. Pemex said had it had difficulty reaching the area about 8 miles (13 kilometers) off shore of the southeastern Mexican state of Tabasco because of high winds and waves.

The Pemex communications office said Friday that its boats had reached the area of the incident but it couldn't say what weather conditions were like.

Taquino said the life raft is a sealed capsule that contains enough food and water to last for several days, but there is no way to communicate with it.

"Visibility is not that great," she said.

Two additional vessels are monitoring the Trinidad II because it cannot be secured due to high seas, and a helicopter was sent out, Taquino said.

Tropical Storm Nate was drifting slowly west-southwestward over the southern Gulf Friday with maximum sustained winds of near 50 mph (80 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was centered about 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of Campeche. Forecasters said it was expected to resume a northwestward path later Friday and hit Mexico's Gulf Coast Sunday or Monday.

A hurricane watch was declared from Tampico to Veracruz.

Gulf of Mexico ports were closed to navigation Friday and preparation were under way in the neighboring Gulf state of Veracruz, where civil protection authorities decreed a tropical storm alert Friday for 212 municipalities.

Tropical Storm Maria, meanwhile, could reach the Lesser Antilles in the Atlantic by Friday night and rain from what had been Tropical Storm Lee continued inundating a wide portion of Pennsylvania and other northeastern states, leaving at least seven dead.

Maria's maximum sustained winds Friday were near 45 mph (75 kph), with some slight strengthening possible, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami and it was moving toward the west-northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).

A tropical storm warning was in effect for a host of islands: Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, St. Maartin, Saba and St. Eustatius.

A tropical storm watch was in effect for St. Barthelemy, St. Marteen, Martinique, Dominica, and Puerto Rico including Vieques and Culebra.

On its current forecast track, Maria's center would reach the Leeward Islands early Saturday and be near the Virgin Islands by Saturday night, the hurricane center said.

Also in the Atlantic, Hurricane Katia was moving northeast over open water after passing between the U.S. and Bermuda. Despite not hitting land, the hurricane center said large swells generated by the Category 1 storm will continue affecting the U.S. East Coast and Bermuda.

Katia was centered midway between Bermuda and Nova Scotia and was moving northeast near 29 mph (46 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph). The long-term forecast indicated it could reach Scotland as a storm on Monday.

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