This post has been updated. See note at bottom for details.
CARACAS, Venezuela -- An early morning explosion and fire at Venezuela's largest refinery killed at least 39 people Saturday and left the nation’s most important source for auto and airline fuel out of commission.
Giant flames and columns of smoke continued to billow from the Amuay refinery, located 200 miles west of Caracas, the capital, into the afternoon.
The disaster occured at a crucial moment in Venezuela’s presidential campaign in advance of its Oct. 7 election, with the efficiency of President Hugo Chavez’s government a major campaign issue. State-owned oil company PDVSA is the owner and operator of the refinery.
A gas leak apparently caused the accident, which destroyed or damaged 11 tanks where propane gas, crude oil, naphtha and other chemicals were being stored. The refinery processes half of Venezuela’s fuel production.
It was too soon Saturday to say what impact the fire could have on U.S. gasoline prices. On average, Amuay exports about 360,000 barrels per day of refined gasoline, mostly unleaded fuels, to the eastern U.S. Thus, U.S. motorists, who buy more than half of the complex’s average production of 645,000 barrels per day, could pay higher prices if the refinery remains out of commission.
The dead included 17 national guardsmen who were assigned to protect the sprawling refinery complex, one of the largest in the world. A 10-year old boy who lived nearby was also among the victims. At least 86 were injured with burn injuries. Social networks, however, reported that many more were still unaccounted for.
With the Amuay fire raging in the background, Venezuelan Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva went on TV in the afternoon to offer condolences to family members of the guardsmen killed in the disaster.
Energy Minster Rafael Ramirez, who also heads PDVSA, told reporters at the disaster site Saturday morning that some of the fires near the tanks were under control and that there were sufficient inventories of fuel to ensure internal supplies and exports for 10 days.
UPDATE, 7:00 p.m., Aug. 25: The number of people who died was raised from 26 to 39.
-- Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon
Photo: Firefighters and rescue teams work at the Amuay oil refinery in Punto Fijo, Venezuela, on Saturday. Credit: Diario EL Amanecer/Associated Press