By Marianna Parraga
PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Against a smoke-blackened skyline of blazing fuel storage tanks, residents who lived alongside Venezuela's biggest oil refinery wandered through what looked like a war zone for days.
As a gas leak seeped around the tanks soon after midnight last Friday, shimmering slightly in the dark, people in the slum across the street from the Amuay facility were either asleep, or outside chatting with neighbors. Then the sky split open.
The explosion damaged 1,600 homes, officials said late on Saturday after a week-long recovery effort on the Paraguana peninsula, by the Caribbean sea in western Venezuela. Some were reduced to their concrete foundations.
The blast also shattered a National Guard barracks even closer to the tanks. Forty-two people were killed in the global oil industry's worst accident for 15 years.
But the problems for the residents of the poor Alí Primera and La Pastora districts were far from over. As the inferno blazed for four days in the giant tanks, threatening more blasts, gangs of robbers roamed some areas, breaking into the less-damaged homes before carrying away fridges and televisions.
"My children asked me, what will we do with a collapsed house? With all the effort that we put into our home, then overnight it's been reduced to this," said Mabel Serrano, 30, who stayed in the rubble for three days before deciding to abandon the smashed structure.
In a slow-motion exodus, they picked up and left this week along with other families who lived on their road, loading their belongings onto trucks provided by state oil company PDVSA.
As they crunched through broken glass, carrying boxes and appliances, teams of firefighters were aiming spumes of foam at the storage tanks, which continued to belch flames and columns of thick black smoke into the air.
On Monday, the fire spread to a third tank.
Squatting near the large cylindrical storage tanks are smaller, spherical tanks holding especially volatile natural gas liquids. They have their own cooling system, but across the country people winced as they watched news footage of the flames appearing to creep closer to them.
Many visitors were scared, but some of those living in neighborhoods near the world's second-biggest refinery complex were more resigned, guarding their homes amid the rubble.
"We have to accept reality. Emissions formed, and a gas bubble was produced because there was no breeze. Everything is risky," said one worker from Amuay's gas units who lost the roof of his home in La Pastora. He asked that his name not be used.
Others are less sanguine about the incident, which has taken on political ramifications just weeks before an October 7 election in which President Hugo Chavez is running for another six-year term.
Opposition critics and union officials have taken PDVSA to task, saying the company failed to carry out essential maintenance work nor improve safety standards following a string of accidents and unplanned outages in recent years.
Chavez has angrily rebuffed allegations that PDVSA might have been at fault, but promised a full investigation. He visited those injured in the blast in hospital two days after the explosion, and spoke at an emotional mass held to honor the almost 20 National Guard troops who were killed.
Chavez's opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles, has opted to limit his comments about the incident, leery of repeating the same old charges of PDVSA mismanagement during a national tragedy.
The question of when the gas leak began is central to the debate, with Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez telling Reuters it could have developed within an hour. Several former Amuay workers who still live in the area said there had been an unusual gas smell before the blast.
Edgar Lugo, 51, who works in security at the complex, wanted answers. "It's a kind of tradition we have here ... Everyone just accepted the smell as normal," he said. "They say they will pay compensation for all the damages. Does PDVSA have so much money that it can pay for a life?"
Lugo and other workers said Amuay's alarm system should have been activated following a gas leak of that magnitude. It would have been heard across the neighboring slums. It did not ring.
(Additional reporting by Sailu Urribarri; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Paul Simao)