CARACAS, Venezuela – A huge explosion rocked Venezuelas biggest oil refinery and unleashed a ferocious fire on Saturday, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 80 others in one of the deadliest disasters ever to hit the countrys key oil industry.
Balls of fire rose over the Amuay refinery, among the largest in the world, in video posted on the Internet by people who were nearby at the time. Government officials pledged to restart the refinery within two days and said the country has plenty of fuel supplies on hand to meet its domestic needs as well as its export commitments.
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.
President Hugo Chavez declared three days of mourning and ordered an investigation to determine the cause of the explosion. This affects all of us, Chavez said by phone on state television.
In a neighborhood next to the refinery, shopkeeper Yolimar Romero said she was at her computer when a shock wave swept over the area shortly after 1 a.m.
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.
Electricity was knocked out, leaving Romero in the dark and her house filled with smoke. She found a flashlight and started looking for her husband and three children.
Outside on the street, the family saw scattered hunks of brick walls and ruins of a National Guard post and about 20 other homes.
At least 86 people were injured, nine of them seriously, Health Minister Eugenia Sader said at a hospital where the wounded were taken. She said 77 people suffered light injuries and were released.
Officials said those killed included a 10-year-old boy, and that 17 of the 26 victims were National Guard troops stationed at the post next to the refinery.
Vice President Elias Jaua, who traveled to the area in western Venezuela, said the authorities tried to save the greatest number of lives.
Officials said firefighters had largely controlled the fire at the refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula, where flames were still visible on Saturday night after billowing dark smoke all day.
The blast occurred about 1:15 a.m. when a natural gas leak created a cloud that ignited, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said.