PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's biggest oil refinery remained offline Tuesday after firefighters extinguished a blaze that raged for more than three days following an explosion that killed at least 41 people.
While fuel tanks smoldered at the Amuay refinery, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said officials expect 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 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.
The explosion on Saturday killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said.
Criticisms of the government's response to the gas leak came from 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.
Officials had said the fire was under control but then announced Monday that a third tank had begun burning. Chavez declared progress again in fighting the blazes late Monday, saying in a message on Twitter that one of the three tanks had been extinguished.
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 that the fire appeared to be out.
"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 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 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.
The refinery is among the world's largest and is part of the Paraguana Refining Center, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, the refineries usually process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline.
More debate about the government response to the explosion is likely during the presidential campaign.
Some Chavez critics and oil industry experts say insufficient maintenance could have made such a disaster likelier. Chavez and other government officials deny that, saying billions of dollars have been spent in recent years on upkeep at refineries including Amuay.
"In the days immediately following this tragedy, opposition leaders will probably not attempt to score points given the gravity of what happened. Nevertheless, Amuay is bound to become a selling point for the Capriles candidacy until the last days of the campaign," said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela.
Chavez's government has been hit recently by other infrastructure-related problems including a prison riot that killed 25 last week, the collapse of a major highway bridge and power outages in parts of the country.
Nonetheless, pollster Saul Cabrera said he doesn't think the refinery disaster is likely to cause significant political damage for Chavez nor shifts in most Venezuelans' views about the government.
Cabrera said that like in the case of the collapsed bridge, the apparent problem behind the refinery explosion "is government inefficiency, but it seems that doesn't matter much to people."
"It doesn't affect (Chavez) among his voters, which are nearly half the country," Cabrera said.
Still, Cabrera predicted the vote will result in a very tight race. "The one who loses 3 or 4 percent of the people, who decide to defect because they think you aren't doing your duty, that could make you win or lose an election," he said.
His polling firm, Consultores 21, found in a survey earlier this month that the two candidates were nearly even, with Capriles at nearly 48 percent and Chavez garnering about 46 percent. The poll consulted 1,000 people in the first half of August and had an error margin of about 3 percentage points.
Cabrera predicted that those who are undecided "are going to end up deciding the election."
Other polls have shown a significant lead for Chavez. The Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis found Chavez with a 15-point lead in one June poll, but also said 23 percent of those surveyed were undecided or didn't reveal a preference.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.