PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela — Venezuelans who live next to the country's biggest oil refinery said they smelled a strong odor of sulfur hours before a gas leak ignited in an explosion that killed at least 39 people and injured more than 80.
The Amuay refinery was still burning on Sunday more than a day after the blast, sending up a thick column of black smoke.
Residents in a neighborhood next to the refinery said that starting about 7 p.m. on Friday they noticed the unusually strong odor. Government officials say the blast occurred about 1:15 a.m. on Saturday when the gas leak created a cloud that ignited.
The cause of the disaster is under investigation.
Gabriela Nunez, a housewife who lives near the refinery, said she noticed the gas odor on Friday night, and then hours later came the shock wave.
"All the windows shattered, the iron doors opened, the wooden doors broke," Mrs. Nunez said.
She returned to her home on Saturday night to gather belongings, saying she was worried about looters who had stolen goods from nearby stores hours after the explosion.
"That forced us to come back, even though we're afraid, to save what can be saved and secure our houses," Mrs. Nunez said.
President Hugo Chavez on Saturday declared three days of mourning in the country.
"It's very sad, very painful."
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 late Saturday. He said 18 of the victims were National Guard soldiers.
He said that at least 39 people were killed by the explosion, up from the earlier death toll of 26. The dead included 18 National Guard troops and that six of the bodies had not yet been identified. Other officials said earlier that the dead included a 10-year-old boy.
In a neighborhood next to the refinery, shopkeeper Yolimar Romero said she was at her computer when a shock wave swept over the area shortly after 1 a.m.
"At that instant, the whole house shook as if it were an earthquake," she said. "The windows went flying off with their frames and everything."
At least 86 people were injured, nine of them seriously, Health Minister Eugenia Sader said at a hospital where the wounded were taken. She said 77 people suffered light injuries and were released.
Flames reaching nearly 100 feet into the night air still crackled almost 20 hours after the explosion occurred, giving off searing heat felt by the residents of the neighborhood located approximately 1,000 feet from the refinery.
Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery. Together, the two refineries process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of gasoline. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the United States and a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
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