Over 14 persons were allegedly burnt to dead when fire engulfed part of the Calabar Free Trade Zone (CFTZ) in the early hours of Sunday while 30 others suffered various degrees of burns. Daily Times gathered that the tragic incident which emanated from LINC Oil & Gas started at about 1.20 am on Sunday was caused by negligence and alleged sabotage by some individuals working in the oil firm.
Investigation revealed that a worker was trying to siphon fuel from a vessel and opened one of the valves. Unfortunately, the gasket on the valve failed and the pressure threw him off then the product started pouring into the gutter. An eye witness who gave his name as Ikenga Uti, said PMS flowed from that valve to the gutter and people started scooping it with various containers. Some came with drums while some came with stainless steel buckets as well as rubber buckets.
“It was in the process of scooping that the fire started from outside and followed the product trail in the gutter back to LINC oil and gas and to Nigeria ports Authority (NPA) where it entered a vessel also loaded with PMS but was put off by the people on board. Eight bodies were brought out from LINC oil and gas and about six people, who were scooping fuel outside the gate, also died.
“The people scooping said that the fire was sparked by somebody who was smoking cigarette close to one of the gutters that the product was flowing through while some said it was a spark from one of the stainless steel buckets but all that doesn’t matter anymore and a lot of people were severely burnt, in a long time the company has not been load this is their first product in a long while and there were no trucks on queue yet, it would have been worse.”
Another witness who pleaded anonymity, told said that incident was caused due to greed and sabotage, saying “the fire was due to illegal activities in one of the tank farms. For now, I can tell you that the safety manager and some security personnel from the company are dead, this tragedy was caused because someone was greedy.
“The person who opened that valve caused this whole thing. He didn’t know there will be leakage, the pressure was much that even threw him away and the fire started when people started scooping the fuel from outside before it spread to NPA and LINC oil and gas where the product leaked from.
According to him, the ship which was on the river nearby, was supplying the product through pipes that passed through the premises of both tank farms. The distance between the ship and the tank farm is about a kilometre. While supply was going on, a staff of one of the farms, identified as one Sunny, who it was gathered was not on duty that night, opened the pipes inside their premises to siphon petrol.
Speaking further he said: “It was believed he was working with others and had been successful for a while until the pressure from where he was siphoning PMS from knocked him down. “The petrol now flowing in huge quantities filled the premises and flowed through gutters back into the river and into the Esuk Utan community, the landlord community. This was around 3am. Due to the strong fumes of the petrol, some members of the community woke up to realize that petrol was flowing through their gutters and decided to scoop the product for themselves.
“At this point it is believed there must have been a spark which set off a fire and killed six of them on the spot. The fire followed the petrol through the gutters back to the vessel that supplied it but the men on board managed to stop the fire from engulfing the vessel, using sophisticated firefighting equipment.”
However, a fishing settlement on the waterfront nearby was not so lucky. The settlement which also serves as a fish market was razed and seven people, who lived there, lost their lives also, according to eyewitnesses. Several wooden canoes and engine boats were caught in the inferno.
It was gathered that three vessels in the adjoining Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) were also affected by the fire. The fire also affected the tank farm where the problem started but it was put off by sophisticated firefighting equipment in the premises.
A staff of one of the oil and gas company who pleaded anonymity said: “Almost 30 people that we have been able to confirm have died. So many have severe injuries and have been rushed to the hospital. I saw someone whose entire legs had melted in the fire”.
“It was only his bones that were sticking out. I do not know if he would survive. It was very horrible. There was fire everywhere. Nobody knew where they would run to. Many other companies in this vicinity and even inside the NPA have had one equipment or the other affected by the fire”.
“The truth is that they were doing an illegal business there that is why there was no safety measure. In fact, there was no safety measure at all that is why the situation got out of hand. If it was a normal operation, I believe it could have been contained easily. It is something they have been doing all the time, but today was bad luck for them”.
“Despite what has happened, I can say it is just fortunate that the tank farms themselves did not blow up, thanks to the sophisticated firefighting equipment they have here, because the impact would have been like that of an atomic bomb. If that had happened, there is no community around us that would not have been severely affected.”
When contacted, state Police Commissioner, Mr. Hafiz Inuwa, however said that they could only confirm seven deaths and nine injured. He said his men were on ground when the fire was raging and helped put out the fire as well as cordoned the area so that hoodlums would not take advantage of the situation to loot.
On his part, Commissioner for Petroleum Resources, Mr. Itaya Nyong, who was at the scene of the incident confirmed the fire was as a result of the activities of criminal elements who were siphoning petrol from the tank farm. He said they were colluding with some security officials and staff of the tank farm to carry out the nefarious act and investigation would be launched into the matter and culprits brought to book to serve as deterrent.
When Daily Times visited the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital(UCTH), six people have already been deposited at the mortuary while 11 others with 80 to 90 degree burns were being attended to at Bakor medical centre including other hospitals.