Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has ordered an investigation into an explosion and ongoing fire at the country’s biggest fuel refining facility that has left at least 41 people dead and more than 80 others wounded.
Firefighters continued to struggle on Monday to put out the blaze at the Amuay refinery. It erupted on Saturday and continues to burn in two storage tanks, threatening to spread to nearby fuel storage facilities.
The Venezuelan leader promised an investigation into the tragedy and three days of national mourning were declared ahead of his trip to the refinery in the country’s far north.
Chavez, fighting a re-election campaign ahead of October 7 polls, slammed reports that poor maintenance was responsible for the accident at the state-owned refinery, one of the biggest in the world, as he paid a visit there on Sunday.
“Some philosopher said, I don’t know who, that ‘life must go on’,” said Chavez, describing as “irresponsible,” experts who have suggested that the government had inadequate safeguards in place at the site.
Both Amuay and the ministry of energy have estimated the 645,000 barrel-per-day refinery can restart work in two days.
International oil prices have ticked upward as a result of the fire, and investment bank Goldman Sachs noted on Monday that similar major fires “typically [have] caused months in delays”.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the town of Punto Fijo, said the refinery’s director “told me that they have the latest, most modern technology to put out [these kind of] flames, [but] they haven’t been able to do so”.
Vice-President Elias Jaua, who travelled to the area in western Venezuela, said on state television late on Saturday 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.
Five of the injured remained in hospital and were being evaluated, while two were transferred to a burn unit in a neighbouring state and the remainder discharged with minor burns.
Balls of fire rose over the refinery, among the largest in the world, in video posted on the internet by people who were nearby at the time.
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.
‘Whole house shook’
In a neighbourhood next to the refinery, shopkeeper Yolimar Romero said she was at her computer when a shock wave swept over the area shortly after 1am.
“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.”
The Venezuelan president pledged to help the people who have been displaced from their homes at the refinery complex, which also houses workers and their families, and in impoverished neighbourhoods nearby.
Rafael Ramirez, the energy minister, said the explosion was triggered by a gas leak, 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 state-controlled VTV television.
Ramirez said the explosion was powerful and caused “significant damage” not only to the plant, but also to nearby shops and homes.
Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control, though smoke was still billowing from the facility.
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 energy minister said he expected production of the 645,000-barrels-per-day facility, which makes up two-thirds of the world’s second largest refinery complex, to resume within two days.
As far as fuel shipments, he said, “we won’t have major effects”.
Ramirez said nine storage tanks were damaged and that oil workers inspecting the damage along with troops would determine the cause of the gas leak.
Images in state media showed the flames casting an orange glow against the night sky. One photograph showed an injured man being wheeled away on a stretcher.
Vice-President Jaua said earlier on his Twitter account that the military was deployed to the area and that air ambulances were dispatched to ferry the wounded.
Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery.
Together, the two refineries process about 900,000 barrels of crude a day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the US and a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
OPEC certified in 2011 that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world at 296.5 billion barrels, surpassing Saudi Arabia, the country with the largest refining capacity.