Explosion Kills 24 at Venezuela's Biggest Refinery

25.08.2012 -

An explosion tore through Venezuela's biggest oil refinery on Saturday, killing at least 24 people, wounding more than 80 and halting operations at the huge facility in the OPEC nation's worst industrial accident in recent memory.

State TV showed footage of flames and billowing clouds of smoke coming from storage tanks at the Amuay refinery. Nearby homes were damaged by the blast at 1:15 a.m. (0645 GMT), and officials said a 10-year-old child was among the dead.

"Unfortunately, 24 people have died, the majority of them members of our National Guard," Vice President Elias Jaua told reporters in local Falcon state. "Four people are in hospital right now, two were transferred to Zulia state and 50 people, thank God, were sent home after treatment because their injuries were not serious."

Most of those killed in the blast, which was caused by a gas leak, were National Guard troops providing security at the sprawling Amuay facilities, officials said.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the fire was under control, but that some fuel residue left in the tanks still needed to burn off.

Ramirez said he expected operations at the 645,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Amuay facility to resume within two days at most.

He said the blaze hit nine storage tanks holding mostly crude oil and some processed fuels including naphtha.

Located on a peninsula overlooking the Caribbean sea in the west of Venezuela, Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refining Center, the second-biggest refinery complex in the world with an overall capacity of 955,000 bpd.

Amuay accounts for half of Venezuela's total domestic output -- about 1.3 million bpd -- of refined fuels.

Troubled oil company

Ramirez told reporters that PDVSA crews working through the night managed to reduce the intensity of the blaze by 80% and that the company would not suffer any shortages.

"We have all our other storage facilities," he said, adding that the refinery's main units had been shut down temporarily.

A military center that also has housing infrastructure was badly affected, as was block 25 of our tank yard," Ramirez said. "In total, we had nine storage tanks affected by the explosion."

"We are capable of restarting operations within a maximum of two days," he said. A commission had already been set up to investigate the cause of the accident, he added.

Windows were broken at homes in the area, as well as at Amuay's main administrative building.

Health Minister Eugenia Sader traveled to a local hospital to visit some of the injured, and Falcon state governor Stella Lugo said the authorities were sparing no expense.

"We are deploying our whole fire service team, all our health team, the whole contingency plan on the orders of Comandante Chavez to treat the people affected by this emergency," Lugo told state TV.

The deadly blast followed repeated minor accidents and unplanned stoppages that have afflicted state oil company PDVSA over the last decade, prompting critics to accuse President Hugo Chavez's government of mismanagement.

PDVSA has struggled with repeated refinery problems in recent years, limiting capacity and crimping ambitious expansion plans. Power faults, accidents and stoppages for maintenance have also curbed exports of oil products.

In 2010, there was a massive fire at a PDVSA fuel terminal on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, then a blaze at a dock at the Paraguana complex that halted shipping for four days.

Also in 2010, a natural gas exploration rig, the Aban Pearl, sank in the Caribbean. All 95 workers were rescued safely.