By KEJAL VYAS and EZEQUIEL MINAYA
PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela -- Large columns of smoke and flame
billowed over Venezuela's largest crude refinery Sunday, as
authorities looked to put out a fire caused by an explosion
over the weekend that killed dozens in the country's deadliest
oil industry accident.
Government officials on Sunday said the 640,000 bpd Amuay
refinery can be restarted in two days once the blaze has been
extinguished and the area deemed "secure."
But crews battling the fire, which broke out early Saturday
following a likely gas leak explosion that killed 41 people and
injured over 80 more, were dealt a setback by shifting winds
At least one official at the local oil industry union
questioned the government's stance that the plant could resume
operations in just a couple days.
A lot of what [the government is] saying I think is
damage control...it's all political, said Ivan Freites, a
local union leader. The workers say it's probably going
to take a lot longer. Right now the damage is
Officials from state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, or
PdVSA, didn't give an assessment of damage but said that the
flames had been contained to two storage tanks in the
southernmost section of the refinery.
The facility is part of the larger Paraguana complex,
located in the northwestern coastal state of Falcon, with a
total refining capacity of roughly 950,000
Rafael Ramirez, who doubles as oil minister and PdVSA chief,
assured viewers during a televised update that the refining area of the facility wasn't
damaged or at risk and that the country had enough stored fuel
and alternate facilities to meet domestic
We have 10 days of inventory of product, Mr.
Ramirez said from near the site and added that Venezuela's
remaining refineries had a capacity of 735,000 bpd of fuel.
Take confidence in the men and women of the new
socialist PdVSA, said Jesus Luongo, general manager of
the Paraguana Refining Center.
Mr. Luongo said under a worst-case scenario, it would take
a couple of days for the blaze to burn itself out
if firefighters were unable to douse the flames. Such a
strategy wouldn't endanger the surrounding facility, he
Mr. Luongo added that fire crews had resumed on Sunday
engaging the blaze at one of the storage tanks.
A cloud of smoke could be seen from miles away, hanging over
the refinery and parts of the city.
Officials estimate that more than 200 homes in the area were
affected by the blast and 33 families displaced.
Residents of the Ali Primera zone, along the refinerys
southern end saw many windows and roofs collapse from the
Of the reported fatalities, at least 18 were members of the
National Guard stationed near the refinery, 15 were civilians -
mostly family of National Guard members - and six bodies
On Sunday, authorities reported two additional deaths of
hospitalized victims of the blast but provided little further
The place looked like a war zone, Ramon Guerra,
a Punto Fijo resident who had helped in the rescue effort, said
of the National Guard compound.
It was as if someone dropped a bomb on the place.
Everything was wiped out, he said, showing a video he had
taken of the aftermath using a smartphone camera.
President Hugo Chavez, who in recent days had been focusing
on development in the oil industry amid a hotly contested
battle for re-election, declared three days of mourning and
expressed his condolences in a written statement.
There is nothing more necessary in this difficult time
than the unified solidarity among all Venezuelans, the
Mr. Chavez has opened an investigation into the blast and
has encouraged the nation to resist attempts to exploit the
During the contentious campaign, the fiery president has
often warned of ambiguous plots - without offering details - by
the US and Venezuelas political opposition to destabilize
the country in an attempt to keep him from capturing a third
six-year term in office.
His main rival in the Oct. 7 vote, Henrique Capriles,
steered clear of politics in a Twitter message expressing his
wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured.
We ask almighty God for the recuperation of all those
people who have been hurt by...(the) accident, the
40-year-old former state governor wrote.
The explosion comes at a time when many analysts believe Mr.
Chavez is fighting his toughest electoral fight ever. The
58-year-old incumbent, who remains the favorite to win, has
been losing ground to the youthful contender in several local
In recent days, Mr. Chavez has apparently sought to match
the door-to-door campaign of the Mr. Capriles and had hit the
campaign trail while primarily focusing on the development of
the oil industry.
Of course, this accident is going to become used in
the election, said Angel Mora, a former contractor at
Amuay who continues to live in the shadow of the refinery. Its just a
matter of who's going to do it first, Mr. Mora said of
the two presidential rivals. He described himself as not
a Chavista, but I don't trust the opposition either.
The populist leader, who recently reasserted that PdVSA was
the bedrock of his self-styled socialist
revolution, has vowed to increase oil production to
3.5 million bpd by the end of 2012 up from the 3 million bpd
Venezuelan officials report as present output.
Industry estimates outside of Venezuela place the country's
output at around 2.7 million bpd.
Detractors of Mr. Chavez, however, point out that his
government has chronically failed to meet the often ambitious
output goals during his 13 years in office with production
actually slipping by many estimates.
Opponents of the president contend PdVSA has been starved of
its own revenue, which has been diverted to finance Mr.
Chavez's many social initiatives, contributing to chronic
operational delays and accidents.
On Saturday, Mr. Luongo dismissed such criticism and said
the PdVSA has kept a rigorous maintenance program, while
spending more than $6 billion on upkeep.
Residents around Punto Fijo said that a partisan debate
rages on with one side saying the Amuay disaster is due to
government negligence while the other says some sort of
sabotage could be at play.
But Jesus Navarro, who lives about 500 meters from the
burning storage tank, says he just hopes the government pays
for the roof that collapsed at his modest three-room home
during the Saturday blast.
Let's just hope it doesn't rain in the meantime,
he said looking at his bed.
Dow Jones Newswires