Hundreds Die in Nigeria After Tapped Pipeline Explodes
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; Page A08
LAGOS, Nigeria, Dec. 26 -- A gasoline pipeline ruptured by thieves exploded into an inferno Tuesday as scavengers collected the fuel in a poor neighborhood, killing at least 260 people in the latest oil industry disaster to strike Africa's biggest petroleum producer.
Braving a towering pillar of fire and a cloud of acrid black smoke, thousands of people in Lagos's Abule Egba neighborhood surged around rescue workers carrying away charred bodies, hoping to find missing relatives.
"My brother, my brother," wept 19-year-old Suboke Adebayo as an unidentified male corpse was loaded into an ambulance. Adebayo, a student, had spent hours trying unsuccessfully to contact her sibling: "I've been calling him since this morning, but I can only hear a holding tone."
A senior official for the Nigerian Red Cross, Ige Oladimeji, said his workers had counted 260 dead by nightfall and had taken 60 injured people to hospitals. "We are still counting [dead], but there will not be hundreds more," he said.
Residents said a gang of thieves had been illegally tapping the pipeline for months, carting away gasoline in tankers for resale.
Such tapping is common in this nation of 130 million people, many of whom live in woeful poverty amid widespread graft that makes a handful wealthy. A pilfered can of gasoline sold on the black market can bring in the equivalent of two weeks of wages for a poor Nigerian.
But tapping also brings frequent accidents. Earlier this year, 150 people died in a similar explosion near Lagos, and a 1998 pipeline fire killed 1,500 in southern Nigeria.
Tuesday's blast, the worst in years, came after thieves opened a conduit during the night but left without fully sealing it, prompting hundreds of nearby residents to rush to collect spurting gasoline with cans, buckets and even plastic bags, witnesses said.
It was unclear what ignited the fuel just after dawn.
"There were mothers there, little children," said Emmanuel Unokhua, an engineer who lives nearby. "I was begging them to go back."
Unokhua said people had splashed fuel on him seeking to chase him away and had also doused a few police officers who tried unsuccessfully to control the crowd.
"They were not arresting anyone because they had no vehicle to put them in," Unokhua said bitterly. "There are plenty of vehicles for the dead bodies now."
Bodies lay scattered around the periphery of the site. For many victims, tiny reminders -- a child's flip-flop blistered by the heat, a half-melted plastic bucket -- were the only identifiable items in a fused mass of bones, skulls and charred limbs.
Flames that nearly incinerated cars and melted electrical lines to pylons kept rescue workers away from much of the carnage until the fire began to wane in early afternoon. Crowds of anguished people impeded the passage of fire crews and ambulances.
The pipeline, owned by Nigeria's state-owned petroleum company, delivers refined fuel for domestic consumption, so the blast was not expected to affect oil pumped for export.
"This was a preventable tragedy," said Joel Ogundere, a lawyer whose home is next to the blast site. "It was poverty, ignorance and greed."