BARELY a week after a fuel tanker fire killed over 100 people in Port Harcourt, tragedy struck again yesterday as a vessel carrying crude oil exploded at the Abuloma Jetty in the Rivers State capital No fewer than 25 persons on board are feared dead.
The incident occurred as five trucks containing petroleum products were reportedly to set ablaze by the Joint Task Force, at Eneka, Port Harcourt, causing great panic in the area.
The Guardian learnt that the vessel that exploded was brought to the private jetty for routine maintenance a few days ago following a major leakage. A worker at the jetty who pleaded anonymity, explained that the welders contracted to fix the leakage had concluded the task and were in the process of welding the anchor of the vessel when suddenly the explosion occurred.
The propelling force of the explosion was said to have flung the welders and the captain who was not inside the cabin of the vessel into the Abuloma creek. The survivors who were later rescued, were immediately rushed to a hospital.
Since it was morning, most of the crew men and their girlfriends were said to be inside the three cabin vessel when the tragic incident happened. Eyewitnesses said none of them was able to escape, probably because of the huge inferno that engulfed the vessel after the explosion.
A guard at the gate of the jetty explained that “ there are over 25 persons, including some girls inside the vessel. As you can see, it has three cabins. There were some girls who visited the crewmen yesterday or so, they had not left by the time the explosion happened. Even the ones that were prevented by the security from entering the vessel last night came here this morning and started thanking God for saving them.”
An eyewitness, Michael Fubara blamed the accident on negligence on the part of the welders. According to him, while the jetty lacks basic safety equipment, the welders failed to use fire mat, which was supposed to prevent any possible outbreak of fire.
“The vessel ought to have gone to Nigerdock or the Nigerian Navy dockyard in Borikiri, but opted to come here probably to save cost of maintenance. There is no fire or any form of safety equipment, otherwise the fire would have been contained. This is the first fire incident recorded,” he said.
Following distress calls from residents of the area, men of the Rivers State Fire Service were said to have arrived at the scene and tried assiduously to extinguish the raging inferno but to no avail due to the unquantifiable amount of crude oil it was carrying.
Officers of the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Navy, Army, Police, Fire Service and National Emergency Management Agency besieged the scene of the accident in a bid to save lives, but could not go near the vessel because of the intensity of the fire.
The Rivers State Sector Commander of FRSC, Dr. Kayode Olagunju explained that the explosion occurred at around 9.45 am, but that the number of casualties had not been ascertained.
NEMA’s South-South Zonal Coordinator, Mr. Umesi Emenike who confirmed the presence of his men at the jetty, explained that nobody had been able to board the vessel because of the fire, hence, “we do not know of any casualty as we speak.’’
The Guardian gathered that the residents of Eneka had begun to scoop fuel from the five petrol trucks impounded by the JTF yesterday but were quickly dispersed.
An eyewitnesses , Mr. Frank Uchendu said: “ The petrol tankers were seized and kept in the area by the JTF for allegedly conveying substances suspected to be illegal petroleum products. The JTF parked the tankers in the area and went away only to come back to see crowds of people scooping fuel from them.”
The Nigerian Army, 2 Brigade Headquarters in Port Harcourt claimed responsibility for the tanker fire. Spokesman of the Brigade, Captain Sunny Samuel, said the trucks were set ablaze in line with the JTF mandate to rid the state of illegal oil bunkering activities.
He disclosed that the five trucks were impounded by the task force for conveying substance suspected to be illegal petroleum products from the area to neighbouring states.
“It was during the JTF operations that the trucks were set on fire this morning (yesterday); the trucks were arrested due to illegal bunkering activities; most of them go to Eneka to get petroleum products from pipeline vandals, so in line with our mandate, we arrested them and set the trucks on fire,” he said.
He debunked allegation that children and commuters went to the scene to scoop the product, saying “we monitored the fire till it went down, even after destroying the whole trucks, our men waited at the scene and nobody was allowed to come near the area.”