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Mexico tries to cope with gas and crude leaks, fires and oil slicks at damaged Gulf oil platform

Mexico was shattered by combination of gas and crude leaks, fires and oil slicks at a damaged Gulf oil platform on Wednesday, almost a month after it was damaged in an accident that killed at least 21.

Since the Oct. 23 accident, the damaged platform has experienced bad weather and at least three fires.

A constant cloud of toxic gas not only has prevented crews from carrying out repairs, but it catches fire so easily that six firefighting boats are pumping thousands of tons of sea water over the platform to cool the metal and extinguish fires, the state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, has reported.

On Tuesday, crews briefly extinguished the latest blaze at the Kab 121 platform, 32 kilometers (20 miles) offshore from the port of Dos Bocas, only to see it re-ignite, said a Pemex representative who was not authorized to be quoted by name. It was still burning Wednesday.

Television stations have repeatedly broadcast aerial shots of the smoking, listing, blackened hulk of the platform battered by enormous streams of sea water from the fireboats.

Pemex says the platform has been spilling an average of about 430 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico - almost 13,000 barrels to date - and its crews have been trying to recover the spilled oil.

Pemex officials have described the repair efforts as extremely complicated. The platform appears to be spewing a combination of natural gas, which is highly flammable, and hydrogen sulfide gas, which is highly toxic.

And the heat of the three fires - all probably caused by sparks - has heated and blackened the entire platform.

For George Baker, a Houston-based energy analyst who follows Pemex, the accident illustrates Pemex's problems.

"All of these things speak to the corporate culture and the quality of leadership and the quality of the whole industrial process," he said. "Those are serious issues that need examination."

Pemex has promised both internal and external investigations of the accident, caused when high waves hit a drilling rig operated by a subcontractor, sending a boom crashing into the platform's valve assembly.

Eighty-five workers and rescue personnel abandoned the platform and rig after the accident. Most dove into small, enclosed fiberglass lifeboats, some of which broke and swamped. Sixty-three workers were plucked from the water by passing ships, 21 were found dead and one remains missing.

Baker said the current spill is small in comparison to Pemex's 1979 Ixtoc 1 spill, which dumped about 3.3 million barrels into the Gulf. In 1991, Iraq intentionally dumped more than three times that much into the Persian Gulf.

In 1979, Baker noted, it took the company three months to control the spill.

Pemex is trying to get a repair crew close enough to the platform to inject a cement-like mixture to block the damaged line, install a new valve assembly and then possibly reopen the well for production.

So far, oil has contaminated about 4 miles (6 kilometers) of Mexico's southern Gulf coast, and authorities said they have removed about 30 tons of oil-impregnated sand.