CARACAS, Venezuela -- Three chain-reaction explosions of fuel and hydrogen at an electricity plant Sunday killed at least 20 people and injured as many as 185 others, officials said.
Oscar Machado Zuloaga, president of the privately owned Electricidad de Caracas, told a news conference that 20 to 30 plant workers, firemen, police officers and rescue volunteers died in the explosions at the plant in Tacoa, about 24 miles northwest of Caracas.
The fire may not be brought under control before Monday, he said. Machado Zuloaga himself suffered slight burns on both arms and his neck when he inspected the scene early in the day.
Machado Zuloaga said a fire broke out early Sunday morning when a fuel oil tank exploded at the power plant, near a beach resort area.
Firefighters rushed to the scene almost immediately and after several hours appeared to have brought the initial blaze under control when a second explosion caused 'the roof of the tank to crumble,' Machado Zuloaga said.
That blast caused a smaller hydrogen tank to explode in what appeared to be a chain reaction, he said.
Machado Zuloaga said he contacted U.S. Ambassador George Landau in an effort to arrange for help from the United States to bring the fire under control and avoid pollution in the area on Venezuela's Caribbean sea coastline.
He urged Caracas residents to reduce electricity consumption by turning down their water heaters and turning off Christmas tree lights.
Machado Zuloaga, whose company supplies a large segment of Caracas' 4 million inhabitants with electricity, said material losses caused by the fires were 'incalculable.'
'We lost about 5 million bolivars ($1.1 million) alone in petroleum,' he said.
Witnesses and police spokesmen said the fire and huge columns of smoke engulfed the area where some 14 tanks were located.
Several media outlets reported that some of their reporters and photographers covering the disaster had disappeared, while others were taken to hospitals with injuries.
Police and military troops evacuated the area as rescue workers could be seen removing the remains of charred bodies and injured people.
Both Machado Zuloaga and Environment Minister Carlos Febres Pobeda, who also was inspecting the area when the second explosion occured at mid-day, discarded the possibility of sabotage.
In such incidents 'the possibility of sabotage always exists, but I believe that in this case, sabotage is ruled out,' Machado Zuloaga said.
'Until now, there is nothing that points to sabotage,' Febres Pobeda said.
More than a dozen nearby civilian and military hospitals have been placed in a state of emergency to attend the injured who included police officers, firefighters, soldiers and rescue volunteers, officials said.
A rescue police helicopter circling an area close to the fire crashed into the sea but its occupants were rescued unhurt, officials said.