Tragedy struck in Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State as explosion from a pipeline belonging to Pipelines and Product Marketing Company Limited (PPMC), a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), burnt scores of people, including some unidentified soldiers in the wee hours of yesterday.
There were different accounts of how the explosion occurred, but all the versions of the account from government authorities, pipeline guards, residents and some eyewitnesses had it that the explosion came from a PPMC abandoned pipeline which has been left unattended to for over three years and was all of a sudden used to pump fuel without considering the dangers involved.
As gathered by Saturday Telegraph, the fire outbreak started by 1:30am and affected two communities; Umuimo and Umuaduru all in Osisioma Local Government Area, where the PPMC abandoned pipeline had some leakages. So many families who reside close to the damaged pipeline have been left in unforgettable sorrows as so many members of their families were burnt beyond recognition while others who went to scoop fuel along the abandoned pipeline were roasted right inside the bush.
When Saturday Telegraph visited the site soldiers of the Nigerian Army blocked the scene and prevented everyone including journalists from entering the scene and even warned that no photos of the scene where the dead bodies laid were to be taken until they were through with the search of something very important to them.
After several hours of waiting, the soldiers brought a machine meant for pumping of water which they aimed to use to free the waterlogged portion of the scene in continuation of their search.
Within few minutes of the pumping a rifle which many said belong to some suspected soldiers who took part in the fuel scooping either directly or by collecting money from those involved was seen and taken away by the soldiers who immediately allowed newsmen to enter the scene and zoomed off in their cars.
On the identity of the victims, it was gathered that a father and son, a nursing mother who left her two months old baby at home after several warnings from her husband with her friend were burnt by the fire.
Some of the names of the victims identified by family members at the scene include: Eze Onwukwe from Obuzor village, Obinnali Enyinnaya and Uchechi Enyinnaya from Okpokoroala village, Ogadinma Reuben from Umuojima Okereke village, Chukwuma Chimeze from Umuokorogbu and one Alozie Ihunnaya.
Mr. Chucks Uzoije, an eyewitness, a pipeline guard and a native of Umuimo, one of the affected communities, said the information on the leakage in the line came over three years ago , but was not attended to. He said:
“The issue of the abandoned pipeline started over three years ago. We got information that there is leakage on the line. We called the authorities and they said it is in the old line which government does not use anymore because there are two lines there. “The one Federal Government is maintaining is different from the one they pumped product into.
So, they said they cannot do anything about it because government did not pay them to repair the two lines and that if government wants them to maintain it, the government should dialogue with them because they cannot get money from air to maintain it.
“Unfortunately yesterday, instead of pumping through the pipeline they use to maintain, they now pumped through the abandoned line. Everywhere there is leakage of fuel. Fuel was pumping without direction and only God knows where they were pumping it to.
Fuel covered the entire bush and when the fire started, my whole house was burnt. “Everything was gone. When the leakage started, we called the Civil Defence and they came to help us scare people away from scooping, but unfortunately they succeeded in entering and around 4:30AM today (Friday). I didn’t come out with anything.
“I now have only my uniform and my torch light. Two of my tenant burnt and most people came to rush them to hospital. I don’t know if they are alive.” Speaking also on the cause of the incident, Chairman of Osisioma Ngwa Local Government Area, Mr. Benjamin Mgbeahuru, who visited the scenes as well as the hospitals where some survivors are still lying critically burnt, blamed the PPMC for using a pipeline they said was an abandoned one in pumping products without checking its ability.
He said: “We have invited the PPMC depot manager more than three times in our security meeting to give us some update on why we are having fire incidents every time along our pipelines, but he has vehemently ignored those invitations.“This line they claimed is an abandoned line, but every time they pump products in there and it catches fire. We must get to the bottom of this time around.”
“This is not the first time. The PPMC and Federal government are not helping us. They don’t come to repair those lines. They claimed it is abandoned, but how do products go in there? This is a very sad period for Osisioma LGA and Abia in general.” A native of Umuaduru who simply gave his name as Sampson said he lost a cousin to the explosion and said his late cousin was warned severely not to go to the site of the leaking pipeline when the news broke out.
“People that died here are more than 50 in number. Some persons carried their people before the soldiers came. Many others died at Umuimo. One of my cousins died here. I was told his mother warned him not to go, but he left unnoticed with wheelbarrow and some gallons.
“They have removed their burnt members very early in the morning, but still insist that we must not remove hours because they are looking for something. They beat people with cutlass and chased women away because of whatever they are looking for which most of us suspect must be the guns of their burnt members which they don’t want to get into the wrong hands.”
When contacted about the incident, the state’s Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Geoffrey Ogbonna, who said he was aware of the incident, assured residents that the police would always be alert in the affected areas to ensure that there was no breakdown of law and order.