27 August 2012, Sweetcrude, CARACAS – VENEZUELA is still in mourning after a huge explosion tore through the country’s largest refinery, killing no fewer than 39 people and injuring more than 80 others.
President Hugo Chavez has declared three days of national mourning on Saturday when the tragedy occurred, saying the explosion affected “the great Venezuelan family, civilians 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. The bodies of another six victims are yet to be identified.
Falcon State Governor, Stella Lugo, had earlier told official television that a 10-year-old child was among the victims.
Health Minister Eugenia Sader said another 82 people were injured. Fifteen of the injured remain in hospital.
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.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 neighbourhoods nearby.
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 noted 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.