Venezuela was in mourning yesterday after a massive explosion tore through the country’s largest refinery, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 80.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared three days of national mourning on Saturday, saying the tragedy affected “the great Venezuelan family, civilian and military.”
Among the dead were 18 members of the National Guard — who were protecting the state-owned refining facility in the northwestern town of Amuay — and 15 civilians, Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said.
The bodies of another six victims had yet to be identified.
Falcon State Governor Stella Lugo had earlier told official television that a 10-year-old child was among the victims.
Another 82 people were injured, Venezuelan Health Minister Eugenia Sader said.
Fifteen of the injured remain in hospital, Jaua said.
Chavez expressed his sympathy to the families of the dead, urging calm because “fortunately, the greatest danger has been controlled.”
Ordering a “thorough investigation,” he vowed to help the people who have been displaced from their homes at the refinery complex, which also houses workers and their relatives, and in impoverished neighborhoods nearby.
Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the explosion was triggered by a gas leak at the refinery, which is owned by state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the cause of which remained to be determined.
“The gas cloud exploded, igniting at least two storage tanks and other facilities at the refinery,” he told VTV television.
Ramirez, who is also president of PDVSA, said the refinery was shut down, but operations would resume in two days.
The blast damaged 209 homes and 11 shops, while 13 families saw their homes completely destroyed and were temporarily moved to a naval base, according to preliminary figures.
Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control, though smoke was still billowing from the facility.
Jorge, a local police officer who lives just outside the refinery, said the scene after the blast was like an inferno.
“First, there was a shock as if the house was hit by a truck,” said the officer, who declined to reveal his last name. “When the shock wave passed, then came the flames, which were all around.”
While officials said there was no risk of another blast, Jaua said that response units would “continue fighting the flames all night.”
Before the blast, the Amuay refinery, one of the biggest in the world, was able to process about 645,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
Venezuelan media has often reported on complaints about safety and maintenance standards at the country’s refineries, which authorities have rarely confirmed.
The Latin American nation produces about 3 million barrels of oil per day, according to state figures, while OPEC has put the number at 2.3 million barrels per day.
OPEC certified last year that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world at 296.5 billion barrels, surpassing Saudi Arabia, the country with the biggest refining capacity.
In March, Venezuelan authorities reported even higher reserves, of 297,570 billion.
Venezuelans are gearing up for Oct. 7 elections, in which Chavez — Latin America’s most influential and outspoken leftist leader for more than a decade — is seeking a third term.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the youthful former governor of Miranda State, has trailed Chavez in recent polls by about 15 percentage points.