Nate inches toward Mexico; 10 oil workers missing

By Antonio Villegas/The Associated Press

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico — Authorities on Mexico’s Gulf coast prepared Saturday for the arrival of a strengthening Tropical Storm Nate, while air and sea search teams hunted for 10 oil workers missing since they abandoned a disabled research vessel in stormy waters.

Nate was still inching westward toward the coast, but was expected to pick up some speed Saturday, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said the storm could be near hurricane strength when it approaches the coast Sunday.

Mexico’s state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, had two ships searching for the missing oil workers. A port official said Friday that they included four Americans, four Mexicans, one from Kazakhstan and a 10th of unconfirmed nationality.

The workers, employees of 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,” Geokinetics spokeswoman Brenda Taquino said.

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.

Randy Reed, president of the vessel’s owner, Trinity Liftboat Services LLC in New Iberia, Louisiana, was unavailable for comment Friday, a person answering the phone at his office told The Associated Press. But Reed told the Advertiser newspaper in Louisiana that the rescue effort involved boats, helicopters and aircraft conducting a grid search of the area where the workers went missing in the Bay of Campeche.

“We’re optimistic. They’re good seamen. They’re professionals at what they do,” Reed said. “The life raft is out there, we just haven’t found it yet. … We’re all working diligently to locate the raft so we can locate our loved ones.”

The captain of the 94-foot (28.6-meter), 185-ton Trinity II reported that the workers were abandoning the vessel about midday Thursday, and a ship several miles away also reported seeing the crew enter the life raft.

But there had been no communication since.

The Mexican navy said Friday night that sailors had reached the Trinity II and found no crew. It said it had a plane, three helicopters and four boats searching for them.

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

Tropical Storm Nate was drifting slowly westward at about 2 mph (3 kph) over the southern Gulf on Saturday with maximum sustained winds of near 60 mph (97 kph), the Hurricane Center said. It was centered about 145 miles (233 kilometers) east-northeast of Veracruz. Forecasters said it was expected to hit Mexico’s Gulf coast Sunday, possibly as a hurricane.

A tropical storm warning was declared along the coast from Tampico to Veracruz. A hurricane watch also was posted for the coast, meaning there was a chance the storm could strengthen into a hurricane.

Pemex said it had evacuated 473 workers from platforms off the coasts of the Gulf coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas. Mexico’s Gulf ports were closed to navigation.

Meanwhile, forecasters said the remnants of Tropical Storm Maria had weakened and were barely a tropical cyclone, headed toward the Lesser Antilles at the eastern end of the Caribbean. Maria’s maximum sustained winds were near 40 mph (64 kph).

Rain from what had been Tropical Storm Lee inundated a wide portion of Pennsylvania and other northeastern states, leaving at least seven dead.

Out in the Atlantic, Katia was now classified as a powerful post-tropical cyclone as it moved northeast over open water after passing between the U.S. and Bermuda. It was expected to bring strong winds to the British Isles on Monday.

Katia was centered about 295 miles (475 kilometers) east-southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, and was moving northeast near 53 mph (85 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (129 kph).

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Associated Press writer Mike Graczyk in Houston, Texas, contributed to this report.