Caracas, Venezuela • An early morning explosion and fire at Venezuela’s largest refinery killed at least 26 people Saturday and left the nation’s most important source of auto and airline fuel out of commission.
Giant flames and columns of smoke continued to billow from the Amuay refinery, about 200 miles west of Caracas, the capital, into the afternoon.
The disaster occurred just six weeks before Venezuela’s Oct. 7 presidential election, with the efficiency of President Hugo Chavez’s government a campaign issue. State-owned oil company PDVSA is the owner and operator of the refinery.
A gas leak apparently caused the accident at the sprawling complex, which destroyed or damaged 11 tanks where propane gas, crude oil, naphtha and other chemicals were being stored.
It was too soon to say what effect the fire, at one of the largest refineries in the world, could have on U.S. gasoline prices. On average, Amuay exports about 360,000 barrels per day of refined gasoline, mostly unleaded, to the eastern United States. Thus, U.S. motorists, who buy more than half of the complex’s average production of 645,000 barrels per day, could pay higher prices if the refinery remains out of commission.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, who heads PDVSA, told reporters at the disaster site Saturday morning that some of the fires near the tanks were under control and that there were sufficient inventories of fuel to ensure internal supplies and exports for 10 days. But fires continued to burn in pipelines that connect areas of the refinery to storage tanks, Ramirez said.
"We had a gas leak whose cause we will determine. This gas generated a cloud that then exploded, causing fires in at least two tanks of the refinery," Ramirez said. "The explosive impact was of such a large magnitude that there was important damage to the structures of the refinery and housing in front of it."
Sources also told the Los Angeles Times that oil tankers had been moved away from docks close to the refinery on the Gulf of Coro in case the fire spreads.
Commercial flights from the international airport at Las Piedras, which provides connecting flights to Curacao, Aruba and other Caribbean destinations, were suspended indefinitely because of the smoke.
The dead included 17 national guardsmen who were assigned to protect the refinery. A 10-year-old boy who lived nearby was also among the victims. At least 86 others suffered burns. Social networks, however, reported that many more were still unaccounted for.
With the Amuay fire raging in the background, Venezuelan Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva went on TV in the afternoon to offer condolences to family members of the guardsmen.
Although deadly refinery accidents occasionally occur around the world, Chavez has made an issue of PDVSA’s efficiency and safety as a strong point in his 13 years in power. He fired half of PDVSA’s 40,000 workers in 2003 after a strike, but has insisted that the company is performing better than ever.
Saturday’s explosion, coming on the heels of this month’s collapse of a bridge leading from Caracas to a popular beach area to the east, is sure to trigger opposition charges that Chavez has neglected the nation’s infrastructure.
Chavez’s opponent in the upcoming election, Henrique Capriles, released a statement expressing his "profound sadness" and support for families of the victims and issued an appeal for calm.
Amuay has had at least eight minor accidents this year. In the PDVSA annual report, the company acknowledged that in 2011 there were only two shutdowns for scheduled maintenance instead of the nine normally carried out. The company didn’t explain why maintenance had been reduced.
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