Fire extinguished at Venezuela refinery
PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela (AP) — All fires have been extinguished at Venezuela's biggest oil refinery after raging for more than three days following a deadly explosion, officials said Tuesday.
State television reported that the flames had been put out in the three fuel tanks that had been ablaze, and showed images of one tank smoldering. The smoke rising from the Amuay refinery had diminished markedly by dawn on Tuesday.
An official of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA said firefighters were working to cool down one of the tanks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
President Hugo Chavez had announced initial progress in fighting the blazes late Monday, saying in a message on Twitter that one of the tanks had been extinguished. That came after officials said earlier in the day that the fire had spread to a third tank.
The explosion early Saturday morning at the refinery killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said.
Officials have said a gas leak led to the blast, but investigators have yet to determine the precise causes.
Amuay is among the world's largest refineries and is part of the Paraguana Refining Center, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, the refineries process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline.
Criticisms of the government's response to the gas leak came from the refinery's neighbors as well as oil experts. Residents said they had no official warning before the explosion hit at about 1 a.m. on Saturday. The blast knocked down walls, shattered windows and left streets littered with rubble.
On Tuesday, residents said they were relieved and talked animatedly with their neighbors.
"We feel happy after so many days of anguish and fear," said Hilda Castellanos, a housewife who said the flames had been diminishing since hours before dawn on Tuesday.
Edgar Medina was working with his father to clear rubble that blocked the way to what remained of their windowless home. "Now what we hope is that they help us rebuild everything."
Chavez visited some of the wounded in a hospital on Monday and said that more than 500 homes were damaged.
Officials said at least 20 of those killed were National Guard troops who had been stationed at a post next to the refinery.
The disaster occurred little more than a month before Venezuela's upcoming Oct. 7 presidential election. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said on Monday that the tragedy shouldn't be politicized, but he also strongly criticized a remark by Chavez, who had said "the show should continue, with our pain, with our sorrow, with our victims."
"It seems irresponsible, insensitive ... to say 'the show should continue,'" Capriles told reporters in Caracas. He repeated past criticisms about the number of accidents at the state-owned oil company, and called for "a serious, responsible and transparent investigation."
"The state has to give answers. Venezuelans have a right to know what happened in Amuay," Capriles said.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.