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 overnight.
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 incalculable.
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 bpd.
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 demand.
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 said.
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 shockwave.
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 remained unidentified.
On Sunday, authorities reported two additional deaths of hospitalized victims of the blast but provided little further detail.
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 leader said.
Mr. Chavez has opened an investigation into the blast and has encouraged the nation to resist attempts to exploit the tragedy.
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 polls.
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