CARACAS, Venezuela – A huge explosion rocked Venezuela’s biggest oil refinery early Saturday, killing at least 24 people and injuring more than 80 others in the deadliest disaster in memory for the country’s key oil industry.
Balls of fire rose over the Amuay refinery, one of the largest in the world, in video posted on the Internet by people who were nearby at the time.
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 from the hospital.
Officials said those killed included a 10-year-old boy, but that most of the victims were National Guard troops stationed at the refinery.
Vice-President Elias Jaua, who travelled to the site in western Venezuela along with a team of top officials, said the authorities were “trying to save the greatest number of lives.”
Officials said firefighters had controlled the flames at the refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula, where large clouds of smoke were rising at daybreak.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said the state oil company should be able to “restart operations in a maximum of two days.”
“We have sufficient supplies… in the entire country, and our production at the maximum to deal with any situation in our domestic market,” Ramirez said. “In that sense, we won’t have major effects.”
An official of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, said the country also has enough supplies on hand to guarantee its international supply commitments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The blast occurred after 1 a.m. when a gas leak created a cloud that ignited, Ramirez said. Some nearby houses were damaged by the blast, he said.
“That gas generated a cloud that later exploded and has caused fires in at least two tanks of the refinery and surrounding areas,” Ramirez said. “The blast wave was of a significant magnitude.”
Images in early hours after the blast showed the flames casting an orange glow against the night sky. One photograph showed an injured man being wheeled away on a stretcher.
“The areas that had to be evacuated were evacuated,” Falcon state Gov. Stella Lugo said on television, according to the state-run Venezuelan News Agency. “The situation is controlled. Of course they’re still a fire rising very high, but … the specialists tell me there is no risk of another explosion.”
Ramirez said oil workers will determine what caused the gas leak and were inspecting the damage along with troops. Ramirez said that nine storage tanks were damaged. He said supplies of fuel had been cut off to part of the refinery, and that the fire had been brought under control.
“At this time, the situation is controlled,” Jaua said on television, while smoke continued to rise from the refinery. Jaua said earlier on his Twitter account that the military was deployed to the area and that air ambulances were dispatched to ferry the wounded.
Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, the two refineries process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the U.S. and a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.