Venezuela oil fire is out. Two days for refinery restart?
Venezuela's huge refinery fire is finally extinguished after three days and 41 fatalities. Oil minister says Venezuela refinery will restart in two days.
PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela
Venezuela's biggest oil refinery remained shut down Tuesday after firefighters extinguished a blaze that raged for more than three days following an explosion that killed at least 41 people.Skip to next paragraph
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While fuel tanks smoldered at the Amuay refinery, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said officials expected to restart operations at the refinery in two days.
The blast early Saturday was the deadliest disaster ever at a Venezuelan refinery and has thrown open a national debate about safety and maintenance within the country's oil industry. The debate has also touched the presidential campaign, with President Hugo Chavez's rival calling for a transparent and thorough investigation.
The fire took longer to put out than officials had initially hoped. Ramirez had said Saturday that the state oil company would be able to restart the refinery "in a maximum of two days," then later said it would be two days once the fire was out.
"Now of course come all of the subsequent tasks: evaluation, securing the entire area," Ramirez told the Caracas-based television network Telesur on Tuesday morning. He said firefighters were still working in the area spraying the tanks with foam to cool them down.
"We need to check all the lines, all the connections, all the valves," Ramirez said. He added that the disaster hadn't affected the refinery complex's productive capacity, although operations were halted while the fires burned.
Officials said the explosion killed at least 41 people, including at least 20 National Guard soldiers stationed next to the refinery, and injured more than 150.
Government officials had said on Monday that the fire was under control but then announced that a third tank had begun burning. Residents said the flames finally began to diminish several hours before dawn on Tuesday.
Criticisms of the government's response came from some of the refinery's neighbors as well as oil experts.
Officials have said a gas leak led to the blast, but investigators have yet to determine the precise causes.
Investigators entered damaged areas to gather clues, Ramirez said. He declined to discuss details of the probe but said officials had followed safety protocols once they detected the gas leak in an area of fuel storage tanks shortly before the blast.
Another state oil company official told Chavez during a televised conversation Sunday that at about midnight officials had detected the leak and "went out to the street to block traffic."
Residents said they had no official warning before the explosion hit at about 1 a.m. Saturday. The blast knocked down walls, shattered windows and left streets littered with rubble.
On Tuesday, residents said they were relieved the fire was out.
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