Two oil well workers died and nine suffered minor cuts and bruises Wednesday after a high-pressure explosion in a West Texas county that is lightly populated but richly saturated with oil.
The two bodies were found about 20 feet from a wellhead that was being replaced, Loving County Sheriff Billy Hopper told The Times. The blast did not trigger a fire.
The sheriff identified the dead as Amos B. Ortega, 46, of Artesia, N.M., and Roberto Andrade Magdaleno, 41, of El Paso. Their deaths bring the number of workers killed in Loving County's oilfields to seven since 2006, he said.
Ortega and Magdalena were among about a dozen workers at the site as independent contractors for RKI Exploration & Production, which owns the well where the blast occurred Wednesday morning.
Jeremy Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for RKI, told The Times that the Railroad Commission of Texas and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration were investigating the incident.
"It’s extremely unfortunate," Fitzpatrick said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the killed and injured."
Hopper, the sheriff, said his best guess was that a valve wasn't closed, allowing natural gas or other high-pressure fumes from underground to build up and blow out one of two nearby wellheads. Shrapnel nicked several workers and spewed debris. The apparent force of the explosion -- with vibrations felt miles away -- led to the two deaths, Hopper said.
"I’m kind of dumbfounded myself," he said. "There was no active drilling on location. Just a truck and one of these equipment things to take off the control head."
According to the initial 911 caller, he said, a separator that divides oil from gas had blown up. But authorities didn't find a separator in operation at the scene, Hopper said.
The county has about 80 residents in its 675 square miles, making it one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country.
But more than 1,000 trucks pass through the county each week, heading to and from its more than 3,500 oil and natural gas wells.
The explosion site is about 12 miles from Orla, Texas, and six miles south of the New Mexico border.
Juwana Kinniburgh told the Carlsbad Current-Argus that her boyfriend, who was at the well, had to drive six miles to get a cell signal to call 911.