Explosion at largest Venezuela refinery kills 26
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CARACAS, Venezuela -- At least 26 people were killed Saturday and dozens more were injured in a giant explosion that set off a raging fire at Venezuela's largest oil refinery, according to officials who rushed to the scene on the Paraguana peninsula.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, who is president of Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company that runs the refinery complex, said the blast occurred at 1:15 a.m. and was caused by a gas leak.
Shortly before the explosion, workers at the Amuay refinery detected the buildup of a cloud of gas and began to respond, Mr. Ramirez said, but it was already too late.
"All this happened very fast, and the explosion occurred almost immediately," Mr. Ramirez said in televised remarks.
The national oil company, also known as PDVSA, has been plagued by accidents and oil spills in recent years, which critics say are the result of poor management.
On Saturday, television images showed dark smoke billowing from the refinery, and photographs taken earlier showed a huge mass of flames leaping into the night sky. Mr. Ramirez said the fire had since been brought under control.
Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the United States.
Mr. Ramirez said the explosion occurred in a storage area near the edge of the vast compound and did not damage the main processing area, so he expected work at the refinery would resume within two days.
Vice President Elias Jaua said 26 people had been killed, including 17 members of the National Guard, which maintains a post at the site that was heavily damaged. Stella Lugo, the governor of Falcon state, where the refinery is located, said a 10-year-old boy was among the dead. Many homes in the area were evacuated.
President Hugo Chavez called the accident "sad and painful" and declared a national mourning period of three days. He vowed to investigate the accident.
The Amuay refinery is part of the Paraguana refinery complex, one of the largest in the world. The complex can process about 900,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
In 2010, there was a large fire at a PDVSA fuel terminal on the Caribbean island of Bonaire. The same year, a fire on a dock at Paraguana interrupted fuel shipments. Also in 2010, a natural gas exploration rig, the Aban Pearl, sank in the Caribbean.
Jose Bodas, an oil union leader, said the company had failed to invest in maintenance.
"This has as a consequence the increase in accidents and tragic deaths like what we are seeing today," he said in a telephone call to Globovision, a television channel associated with the political opposition to Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Ramirez said enough fuel reserves in the country could supply the internal market for 10 days and that he did not expect problems in meeting demand.
First Published August 26, 2012 12:00 am