A natural gas pipeline exploded beneath a busy highway during rush hour Tuesday, engulfing a passenger bus and cars in flames and killing at least 36 people.
The pipeline apparently was ruptured by a state telephone company crew laying fiber-optic cables, officials said.
“It was like a stream of fire that leaped to the sky,” said Alberto Jose Galeno, a passenger in a truck on the other side of the highway. He spoke from his hospital bed.
There was confusion about the death toll, largely because most bodies were incinerated by the fire. The state news agency Venpres initially reported 50 dead but lowered the toll to 37 Tuesday night.
At the scene, Fire Capt. Egui Martinez initially said 38 bodies had been taken to morgues, but he later revised his estimate to 36, saying that was how many skulls had been found.
The explosion occurred shortly before 8 a.m. on the Central Regional Highway in this town 30 miles southwest of the capital, Caracas.
The heat from the explosion was so intense that Jesus Hernandez, a truck driver, suffered first-degree burns on his face and hands even though he was 200 yards away.
“There was a big flash. The windshield broke. I ran,” Hernandez said.
The president of state-run phone company CANTV, Bruce Haddad, did not acknowledge the company’s responsibility for the explosion but nevertheless offered to compensate victims and their families.
“We want to help the victims and pay for the damage to the cars,” Haddad said in an interview broadcast by Radio Caracas Television.
Most of the dead were on a bus that was passing close to the excavation crew.
“We’re taking them out in pieces,” said Homero Rauseo, regional civil defense director.
A phone company truck was flipped over by the explosion, but the driver survived.