PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela – A huge explosion rocked Venezuela’s biggest oil refinery and unleashed a ferocious fire on Saturday, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 80 others in one of the deadliest disasters ever to hit the country’s key oil industry.
Balls of fire rose over the Amuay refinery, among the largest in the world, in video posted on the Internet by people who were nearby at the time. Government officials pledged to restart the refinery within two days and said the country has plenty of fuel supplies on hand to meet domestic needs as well as its export commitments.
The explosion shattered walls of nearby shops, ripped out windows from homes and left the surrounding streets covered with rubble and twisted scraps of metal.
President Hugo Chavez declared three days of mourning and ordered an investigation to determine the cause of the explosion. “This affects all of us,” Chavez said by phone on state television. “It’s very sad, very painful.”
Vice President Elias Jaua, who traveled to the area in western Venezuela, said on state television late Saturday that at least 39 people were killed by the explosion, up from the earlier death toll of 26. He said that the dead included 18 National Guard troops and that six of the bodies had not yet been identified. Other officials said earlier that the dead included a 10-year-old boy.
In a neighborhood next to the refinery, shopkeeper Yolimar Romero said she was at her computer when a shock wave swept over the area shortly after 1 a.m.
“At that instant, the whole house shook as if it were an earthquake,” she said. “The windows went flying off with their frames and everything.”
Outside on the street, she saw scattered hunks of brick walls and ruins of a National Guard post and about 20 other homes. Bodies were being pulled from buildings down the street.
At least 86 people were injured, nine of them seriously, Health Minister Eugenia Sader said at a hospital where the wounded were taken. She said 77 people suffered light injuries and were released.
Flames reaching nearly 100 feet into the night air still crackled almost 20 hours after the explosion occurred, giving off searing heat felt by the residents of the neighborhood located approximately 1,000 feet from the refinery.
“This does not seem to be getting any better; I see and feel more and more flames,” said Francisco Rojas, a 29-year-old taxi driver from the neighborhood, as he loaded some of his belongings into a truck.
“I have a young daughter and my wife, and we don’t want to take the risk of dying here,” Rojas added.
Officials said firefighters had largely controlled the fire at the refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula.
The blast occurred about 1:15 a.m. when a natural gas leak created a cloud that ignited, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
“That gas generated a cloud that later exploded and has caused fires in at least two tanks of the refinery and surrounding areas,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said a panel of investigators was being formed to determine the cause of the gas leak. A prosecutor was appointed to lead the investigation and troops were deployed to the area.
While the cause of the disaster remains unclear, some oil workers and critics of Chavez’s government have recently pointed to increasing numbers of smaller accidents and spills as an indication of problems within the state-run company.
“We warned that something was going to happen, a catastrophic event,” said Ivan Freites, secretary general of a 1,200-member union of oil and natural gas industry workers in Falcon state where the refinery is located. He spoke in a telephone interview from an area near the refinery, where he could see the flames raging in the distance.
The refinery complex’s general manager, Jesus Luongo, denied that a lack of maintenance was to blame, saying in the past three years more than $6 billion has been invested in maintaining the country’s refineries.
Ramirez said the explosion hit an area of storage tanks, damaging nine tanks.