A huge explosion at an oil refinery in the northwestern part of Venezuela killed at least 41 people and injured over 50 people, the AP reports. The death toll rose from 39 to 41 overnight on Saturday after officials discovered two more casualties who had perished from severe burns. The explosion occurred early on Saturday morning, just after 1:00 am, and started a vicious blaze. The explosion reportedly sent a shock wave through neighboring homes and even damaged some of those residential structures.
The BBC notes that the accident was caused by a gas leak at the Amuay facility, which produces at least 645,000 barrels of oil a day. The leak and subsequent explosion destroyed two fuel tanks and caused significant structural damage. Despite the fact that the refinery is one of the biggest refineries in the world, officials have claimed that there is enough oil to last the population of Venezuala throughout the weekend. Some have even said that operations will return to normal by Monday.
President Hugo Chavez was quick to respond to the incident and made a public announcement calling for national mourning for the victims of the explosion:
I want to send out to the families of those who died, civilians and military, all our pain, mine, that of all my family, everyone in the national government and the people of Venezuela
It has been decided to have three days of mourning, national mourning because this affects everyone in the big family of Venezuela.
Included in the roster of victims were 18 National Guard troops and possibly a 10-year-old boy, according to the Associated Press. Residents living in the area have called on the the PDVSA, the country's government-run oil company, to pay for damages and to pay for families to move away from the area. Many have blamed the government for a lack of safety measures for families living near unstable facilities.
Other critics have said the accident was due to falling safety standards and a lack of investment in new equipment and safety features. Ivan Freites of a union of gas and oil workers told the AP, "We warned that something was going to happen, a catastrophic event."
Gustavo Coronel also blamed a lack of financing for the accident, saying, "Accidents happen, of course, although the problem with PDVSA is the inordinate amount of accidents that have taken place during the last years We are not talking about bad luck but about lack of maintenance and inept management."
Hugo Chavez's government has come under increasing global fire and with elections set to take place this October, many critics have suggested the voting will be unfairly slanted in the current leader's favor.
Emergency troops were reported to have been quickly deployed to the area and battled the blaze with foam and that many of the injuries were not serious. Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez announced that an investigation panel would get under way to ascertain what caused the leak and why. He also spoke out against critics of infrastructure and investment policies saying that around $6 billion had been invested in Venezuela's refineries in recent years.
Although the refinery is one of the largest in the world, experts have said that the explosion and fire will probably not impact the availability of gas or gas prices around the world. The huge orange blazes that cast their mark over the neighborhood on Saturday night, however, will remain ingrained in residents' minds for some time to come. The BBC notes that fires continued to blaze throughout the weekend as officials attempt to recover from the blast.