At least 51 people were burned to death while sitting in stalled rush hour traffic Tuesday when a natural gas pipeline exploded alongside a busy Venezuelan highway, rescue officials said.
Another 30 motorists were injured when the pipeline, accidentally punctured by workers, blew up at 7:30 a.m., 40 miles west of Caracas, civil defense officials said.
Military officials confirmed that there were 51 dead in the charred wreckage. But Maracay fire squad Capt. Eguis Eduardo Martinez said the toll could rise to 60, although it was difficult to determine because some bodies were reduced to ash.
The toll included 33 people incinerated in a bus that was stuck in traffic next to the pipeline that sent flames as high as 200 feet into the air, Miranda state civil defense official Cesar Leon said.
Skeletons lay in the wreckage of the bus and several other vehicles that were incinerated when telephone company crews installing cables struck the 20-inch pipeline.
“There were three big explosions,” eyewitness Luis Medina said. “The heat was intense and the ground shook.”
Hours later, the vehicles were still smoking.
The dead were so badly burned that only one, Jose Jimenez, was identified after his metal police badge was found next to his remains.
Aragua state Gov. Carlos Tablante criticized a lack of coordination between the telephone company CANTV and the Corpoven unit of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, which operates the gas line.
“How is it possible that an accident of this magnitude could be caused by a lack of coordination,” he said.
The explosion, heard several miles away, burned about 20 cars and two buses, officials said.
Officials reportedly closed that part of the highway, which links Caracas to several other cities, forcing a detour that backed up traffic about 10 miles.