CARACAS // A huge explosion rocked Venezuela's biggest oil refinery yesterday, killing at least 24 people, including a 10-year-old boy. It is the deadliest disaster to strike the country's oil industry.
At least 53 people were injured by the blast at the Amuay refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula in the west of the country, said Stella Lugo, the Falcon state governor. Firefighters had controlled the flames, she added. although large clouds of smoke were still rising.
Many of the dead were National Guard troops stationed at the refinery, said Elias Jaua, the vice president, who visited the site. Authorities were "trying to save the greatest number of lives", he added.
Production was shut down at the refinery, which pumps out 640,000 barrels of crude a day, but was expected to restart in two days, said the oil minister, Rafael Ramirez.
The country had plenty of reserves for domestic demand, he said, adding that as far as fuel shipments were concerned, "we won't have major effects".
The explosion happened after 1am when a gas leak created a cloud that ignited, said Mr Ramirez. Some nearby houses were damaged by the blast.
"That gas generated a cloud that later exploded and has caused fires in at least two tanks of the refinery and surrounding areas," he said. "The blast wave was of a significant magnitude."
Images in state media showed an injured man being taken away on a stretcher.
"The areas that had to be evacuated were evacuated," said Ms Lugo. "The situation is controlled. Of course there is still a fire rising very high, but ... the specialists tell me there is no risk of another explosion."
Oil workers were inspecting the damage along with troops to determine what caused the leak. Troops were also securing the area at the refinery.
Mr Ramirez said that nine storage tanks had been damaged.
Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, they process about 900,000 barrels of crude a day and 200,000 barrels of petrol. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the US and a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
In recent years, Amuay, along with other major refineries in the country, have experienced chronic operational delays due to accidents and mishaps.
Critics say this poses a challenge to President Hugo Chavez's ambitious plans to sharply increase oil output.
* With additional reporting by Dow Jones