Caracas, August 26th 2012 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government has confirmed that 41 people have been killed in a gas explosion at the country's biggest oil refinery in Amuay, located in the western state of Falcón. An immediate investigation has been launched into the causes of the accident.
The explosion took place on Saturday in the early hours of the morning and was allegedly caused by a gas leak at the plant.
“We had a gas leak, we are going to determine its origin, that gas generated a gas cloud which then exploded and has caused fires in at least 2 tanks in the refinery and in the surrounding areas. The wave of the explosion was of a sizeable magnitude and there is considerable damage,” said oil and mining minister, Rafael Ramirez, who announced the tragedy on Saturday afternoon.
Video footage of the explosion showed the plant engulfed in flames and black smoke in the sky behind it. Nearby shops and homes were also affected by the blast, with evacuated families in the surrounding area only being able to return home on Saturday evening.
The Amuay explosion is one of the deadliest accidents to have taken place in the history of the country's oil industry. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has declared a 3 day period of mourning on behalf of the victims.
The deceased included workers at the plant and soldiers from the national armed forces who were guarding the refinery at the time. Another 118 people were injured, with 33 needing hospital treatment. They are currently reported to be in a stable condition.
In an official statement, ex-paratrooper Chavez honoured the 17 soldiers who had lost their lives in the explosion and granted them posthumous military promotions.
“At this time of great pain, and from the bottom of my soldier's heart, may you and all of our comrades in arms from the National Bolivarian Guard receive a huge embrace in solidarity for the painful loss of such brave lives in the tragedy in Amuay. As the Son of Bolivar that I am, today my mourning is the same mourning as that of the entire country,” read the statement.
Speaking on Sunday morning, Rafael Ramirez confirmed that the government had managed to contain the fire to two storage tanks and that production at the plant would return to normal within 48 hours. The minister also appealed for calm to the Venezuelan population and stated that Venezuela had enough oil to meet national needs and to honour its export commitments.
President Hugo Chavez visited Falcón on Sunday and met with families who had been affected by the tragedy, as well as paying a personal visit to the injured in hospital.
During his visit, Chavez cautioned against speculating over the causes of the accident until the results from the investigation could be reviewed. The president also denied claims by Venezuela's political opposition and their spokespeople in the media who have cited a lack of government investment at the plant as the cause of the leak.
“I know who is saying this, but I will not stoop to their level,” said Chavez, adding that government investigators had not yet managed to reach the site of the explosion in order to decipher the cause of the leak.
Energy minister Rafael Ramirez also discounted the claims, and confirmed that the plant had received US$4.3 billion from the government since the year began.
Commenting on the political opposition's coverage of the tragedy, grassroots activist Joel Linares from Caracas criticised the private Venezuelan media and opposition figures for using the incident as an opportunity to smear the current government in the run-up to the presidential elections.
“All death is painful, but it hurts even more when it is used to attack and insult the memory and the dignity of the people,” said Linares.
He also pointed out that in 1982 and 1993 there had been two accidents in state refineries in Tacoa and Las Tejerias, which resulted in 260 and 48 deaths respectively.
“In that moment,” said Linares, “it wasn't being blamed on Luis Hererra or Carlos Andres Perez,” who were the presidents at the time.
Following the blast, the Venezuelan opposition candidate Capriles Radonski urged Venezuelans to “seriously reflect” on “where they wanted Venezuela to be headed”.
“We are talking about human lives here, not material damage,” he said.
Reports that government websites were hacked at the time of the explosion and that opposition news station, Globovision, broadcast “exclusive” footage from an unknown person with a professional camera outside the refinery at 2am, have led some journalists to speculate that the cause of the leak was not accidental.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday afternoon, the country's Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, stated that the investigation into the cause of the disaster would take as long as necessary.
“The team is made up of two national district attorneys, three directors and a group of experts such as anthropologists, odontologists, specialists in forensic science, and experts in care for victims and disaster management,” explained Diaz.
The government has also set up a national fund worth millions of Bolivars in order to repair the damage to peoples' houses in the vicinity.