At least 100 people were killed when a fuel tanker from which they were scooping fuel exploded at Okogbe village in Ahoada West Local Government Area of Rivers state yesterday.
Seven cars and 34 motorcycles were burnt while at least 28 persons, including pregnant women and children, were injured in the incident.
The Sector Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission in Rivers state, Mr Kayode Olagunju, explained that the tanker swerved as it was trying to avoid a collision with three oncoming vehicles, including a bus.
The tanker, which was loaded with petroleum, was forced to skid off the road and somersault.
The villagers seized the opportunity and rushed to the scene with jerry cans and buckets and started scooping fuel from the tanker.
“Then there was an explosion followed by fire,” Olagunju said. “Ninety-three were burned to death on the spot. Two died later in the hospital (and) 18 people were seriously injured.”
Many of those killed were motorcycle taxi operators (“Okada”), who raced to fill up their tanks after learning of the crash.
Olagunju said, “Casualty figures are definitely high, and about 20 injured persons already taken to the hospitals. Thirty-four motorcycles also got burnt.”
Motorbikes were used as ambulances to convey victims to Mbiama community near Bayelsa, a distance of about 30 minutes, searching for hospitals and clinics to treat victims.
An Oando filling station located near the explosion site was spared the fire, as Good Samaritans were seen combing bushes searching for injured persons along the Agip pipeline, close to the explosion area.
The incident, which occurred shortly before 7am, also affected traffic along the busy East-West road as vehicles plying Port Harcourt, Warri, Yenagoa and Lagos routes suffered long queues while others who couldn’t stand the wait made u-turn.
Following the closing down of the road to traffic, men of the Nigeria Army and the Police Force were deployed to the scene to control traffic.
One of the soldiers, who witnessed the incident, put the death toll at 100 persons, just as he said the victims were burnt beyond recognition. Some victims were recovered from a stream close to the Oando filling station where they dived to cool their burnt bodies, he said.
Narrating the incident, Mrs. Cecilia Ike, who narrowly escaped death, said the tanker was involved in an accident and somersaulted.
She said following the mass rush, somebody mischievously threw light into the scene. She blamed it all on the youths of the area.
Ike thanked God for sparing her life because, according to her, she had fetched two jerry cans of fuel and went in search of more cans.
Another eye witness, Mr. Augustine Ayibatari, who also escaped death by whiskers, gave a rough estimate of the death toll to between 80 to 100.
He also attributed his escape to God.
Hours after the explosion, rescue operations from governments of Rivers and neighbouring Bayelsa state were slow in coming to visit the scene, forcing relatives to use motorbikes to convey victims to hospitals.
Many people could hardly get treatment due to the near absence of good hospitals in the area.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said that 95 bodies were recovered and 18 victims were admitted in hospitals from the scene of the explosion.
A press statement signed by the Head of Public Relations of NEMA, Malam Yushau A. Shuaibu, said: “Rescue workers from the police, Road Safety, Fire Service; Civil Defence and NEMA were at the scene to evacuate victims and control the traffic. Two small vehicles were also affected.”
In his reaction to the tragedy, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan directed federal relief and health agencies to do everything possible to ensure that all those who survived the explosion receive prompt and effective medical attention.
A statement issued by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, said: “President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is deeply saddened by the loss of many lives caused by an explosion resulting from the leakage of fuel from a fallen tanker at Okobe, Rivers State today.
“President Jonathan is particularly distraught by the fact that, once again, so many Nigerian lives have been lost in an avoidable fuel fire disaster. He conveys his sincerest condolences to the families of the victims, and the government and people of Rivers state.”
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