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The explosion shattered walls of nearby shops, ripped out windows from homes and left the surrounding streets covered with rubble and twisted scraps of metal.
President Hugo Chavez declared three days of mourning and ordered an investigation to determine the cause of the explosion. "This affects all of us," Chavez said by phone on state television. "It's very sad, very painful."
Vice President Elias Jaua, who traveled to the area in western Venezuela, said on state television late Saturday that at least 39 people were killed by the explosion, up from the earlier death toll of 26. He said that the dead included 18 National Guard troops and that six of the bodies had not yet been identified. Other officials said earlier that the dead included a 10-year-old boy.
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.
Officials said firefighters had largely controlled the fire at the refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula, where flames were still visible Saturday night after billowing dark smoke all day.
The blast occurred about 1:15 a.m. when a natural gas leak created a cloud that ignited, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez 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.
He said a panel of investigators was being formed to determine the cause of the gas leak. A prosecutor was appointed to lead the investigation and troops were deployed to the area.
While the cause of the disaster remains unclear, some oil workers and critics of Chavez's government have recently pointed to increasing numbers of smaller accidents and spills as an indication of problems within the state-run company.
"We warned that something was going to happen, a catastrophic event," said Ivan Freites, secretary general of a 1,200-member union of oil and natural gas industry workers in Falcon state where the refinery is located. He spoke in a telephone interview from an area near the refinery, where he could see the flames raging in the distance.
The refinery complex's general manager, Jesus Luongo, denied that a lack of maintenance was to blame, saying in the past three years more than $6 billion has been invested in maintaining the country's refineries.
The oil minister said supplies of fuel had been cut off to part of the refinery and firefighters were using foam to extinguish the flames.
Written and photos by Tulsa World