Officials say 26 people were killed and more than 50 others injured in pre-dawn blast at Amuay facility
A large gas explosion has rocked Venezuela’s biggest refinery, killing at least 26 people before dawn on Saturday. 17 were members of the National Guard, stationed at a base outside the refinery.
More than 50 other people were injured in the blast, and a 10-year-old child was among the dead.
“Unfortunately, 26 people have died, the majority of them members of our National Guard,” Vice-President Elias Jaua said. “Four people are in hospital right now, two were transferred to Zulia state and 50 people, thank God, were sent home after treatment because their injuries were not serious.”
President Chávez declared three days of national mourning.
Officials said the blast at the 645,000-barrels-per-day Amuay facility was caused by a gas leak and that it had also damaged nearby homes.
Based in the west of Venezuela, Amuay is part of the Paraguaná refining centre, one of the biggest refinery complexes in the world.
“A cloud of gas exploded,” the energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, told state TV. “It was a significant explosion, there is appreciable damage to infrastructure and to houses opposite the refinery.”
Emergency workers were at the scene, where smoke and flames could be seen over the facility. Ramirez and Stella Lugo – the governor of Falcón state – said the situation was under control several hours after the explosion at about 1am local time.
“There’s no risk of another explosion,” Lugo said.
Amuay is operated by state oil company PDVSA which has struggled with repeated refinery problems in recent years, affecting its production figures and ability to fulfil ambitious expansion plans.
Power faults, accidents and planned stoppages for maintenance have hit deliveries from South America’s biggest oil exporter.
Eddie Ramirez, national co-ordinator for Gente del Petróleo, an organisation of ex-employees of PDVSA, said: “These accidents have been happening more and more frequently in the last couple years because of a neglect in safety and maintenance standards.
“Minister Ramirez dedicates his time to doing politics alongside the candidate, Hugo Chávez, instead of maintaining the level of infrastructure this kind of industry requires.”
Sisoes Moreno, a retired worker from PDVSA who lives close to the refinery said the explosions were so potent that people in surrounding towns thought it was an earthquake. He said the explosion completely destroyed a national guard base in front of the refinery. “It was totally burnt down … The mechanisms for control were not working. A lot of the standard safety measures have been violated. A siren should go off at the first indication of a change in pressure to warn people. It didn’t.”
The energy minister said the Amuay refinery has the capacity to restart operations in a maximum of two days and guaranteed the existence of sufficient resources to supply Venezuala’s internal market following the explosion.