PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela — After nightfall on Friday, as red lights began glowing atop the massive Amuay refinery in western Venezuela, the odor of sulfur made its way through the surrounding neighborhood of working-class homes and small shops.
Francisco Gonzalez, an accountant, noticed the smell after 7 p.m. as he climbed the stairs to his second-story apartment across the street from the refinery. He had smelled the fumes from gas leaks many times before, so he didn't think much about it as he shut the door.
Six hours later, disaster struck. A powerful explosion ripped through the neighborhood and engulfed part of the refinery in flames, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 80 in Venezuela's deadliest refinery blast.
"The first thing I saw was that the apartment didn't have windows or doors or walls, just a floor and a roof," Gonzalez said. "I don't know how we survived."
In the dark, the 31-year-old man made his way downstairs to the street, where he, his brother and sister-in-law joined terrified neighbors. Some were wounded. Others were shouting.
About 2 a.m., the halls of the hospital were filling up with wounded people. Doctors and nurses hurried to treat the most seriously hurt, while Gonzalez and others waited their turn.
Back at the refinery, soldiers, firefighters and state oil company workers were diving into action. Bodies were pulled from the rubble and lifted onto pickup trucks.
Stella Lugo, the governor of Falcon state, went on state television to update the nation, setting the initial toll at seven people dead and 48 injured. The toll steadily rose in the next hours.
Other government officials went on television saying that the gas leak had led to the blast and that the fire was being brought under control. President Hugo Chávez ordered an investigation and declared three days of mourning in the country.
A total of 209 homes and 11 businesses were damaged in the explosion, and a National Guard post next to the refinery was destroyed, Vice President Elias Jaua said on Saturday. He said 18 of the victims were National Guard soldiers.
Flames were still raging on Sunday, sending up a column of dark smoke.
Some oil experts and government critics were raising questions, saying that they believe there hasn't been sufficient maintenance at refineries and that the situation could be making such incidents more likely.
Refinery manager Jesus Luongo denied that, as did Chávez, who spoke to journalists near the refinery on Sunday.
The refinery is among the world's largest and is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. They process 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said the country has enough fuel in storage, "10 days of inventories," to keep the Venezuelan market fully supplied. He said that fires were still burning in two fuel storage tanks but that other "process areas" of the refinery were otherwise unaffected.
Once the flames are completely extinguished, Ramirez said, "we have the ability to restart our refinery in two days."