Umuimo and Umuaduru, both in Osisioma Local Government Area of Abia state literarily became ghost communities days after the devastating fire outbreak that claimed many lives and destroyed properties worth millions of naira. Kalu Eziyi, writes from Umuahia
For these people, Friday, October 12, will remain fresh in their memory as they may never forget the tale that swept some family , friends and neighbors into their early graves.
This Black Friday will surely be marked in history as a day over 200 persons were burnt to death while scooping fuel in an abandoned pipeline belonging to Pipeline and Products Marketing Company, PPMC, in the area.
This was courtesy of the pipeline fire disaster which took a high toll of yet to be ascertained human lives, left many others seriously injured, and destroyed property worth millions of Naira in the communities the previous day.
Property comprising buildings, motorcycles and other valuables consumed in the inferno are being estimated to worth over N100 million.
Days after the heart breaking incident, over 30 persons who sustained severe burns are said to be receiving medical attention at different hospitals in Aba and environs.
Being in a surbub of Aba, the commercial hub of the state, the communities are host to not only indigenous Ngwa people, but also to many others from different parts of the state and beyond. By virtue of this, whatever calamity that befalls these communities certainly have a ripple effect across the state.
In Okpokorala, a nearby community in the area for instance an innocent passerby and a victim of the inferno, Mr. Ifeanyi Ndubuisi Okechukwu, was said to have been trapped while attempting to go through, while the inferno raged.
Ikechukwu, even as he laid down on a mat on the floor of his house, moaning helplessly and writhing in pains sustained from the explosion could well be considered luckier than the scores that perished.
Just as the casualty figure has continued to rise, startling revelations about some victims identities were being made.
A nursing mother, some security personel and scores of youths are known already to be among them.
According to a taxi driver in one of the communities, “most of the victims were youth of between the ages of 25-30 who wanted to make quick money without considering the consequences of the venture.”
A father of 3, who said he was tempted to join them in “taking my share of the manna from the pipe” regretted that many were yet to learn the hard lessons in such venture.”
Naturally there has been many theories about the possible cause of the inferno. One fact that cannot be contested is that either by accident or design, there was a rapturing of the pipeline from which Premuim Motor Spirit (PMS) commonly reffered to as petrol flows to the surface, thus , attracting scoopers. How and what ignited the inferno remains a million naira question.
However, according to the chairman of Osisioma Local Government Traditional Rulers Council, Eze Ikechukwu Chiavoghilefu, the number of casualties has been rising steadily as he disclosed that dozens of people that were badly burnt eventually died.
He specifically cited a particular health clinic where about 70 victims were taken to for treatment when the incident happened on Friday, saying in less than 24 hours over 30 of them died.
The monarch, who spoke when the Senator representing them at the National Assembly, Chief Theodore Orji, visited the affected communities to sympathise with the victims, insisted that the death toll has risen to over 200.
“About 70 persons were parked in the health clinic near my palace on the first day it happened and all of them have now died. Up to 150 have so far died,” the monarch said.
Eyewitnesses told LEADERSHIP Sunday that the inferno was ignited by some soldiers who rode two motorcycles to the scene. It was a gory sight as charred remains of human beings littered the scene and adjoining bushes.
Many families who live close to the abandoned pipeline lost their loved ones, including those who were far from the scene. Victims were burnt beyond recognition as the fuel spread to farmlands.
LEADERSHIP Sunday learned that the incident occurred at 1.30 am in an abandoned pipeline at Umuimo and Umuaduru villages in Osisioma Ngwa council area.
The pipeline was said to have been abandoned for about three years, but was suddenly used to pump fuel leading to heavy leakage of the product in the area. Residents of the area took opportunity of the leakage to scoop fuel, which they sold to the public until the explosion occurred.
It was a theatre of confusion as people tried to identify their relations who had stormed the area scooping fuel.
Journalists and sympathisers had a hectic time trying to access the area as they were stopped by some soldiers who barricaded the scene and ordered that no one should take pictures of the charred bodies until they were through with the search. The soldiers later brought a machine to pump water to the scene.
It was feared that some soldiers may have died in the inferno as some rifles were allegedly recovered from the scene, but this could not be confirmed as at press time.
A native of Umuaduru who 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 who 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.
“When we heard about the fire, I first called everyone I knew, but when he could not be reached, I knew there was trouble. We are yet to identify him because of these soldiers who claimed they were looking for something and that everyone should stay away.
“The soldiers prevented those who lost their loved ones from going there because we learnt that some of their members who came to do the same thing my cousin came for were also burnt here.
“They removed their burnt colleagues very early in the morning, but still insisted that we must not remove ours because they were looking for something.
“They beat people with cutlasses and chased women away because of whatever they were looking for which most of us suspected must be the guns of their burnt colleagues, which they didn’t want getting into the wrong hands.”
While there are conflicting reports to the cause of the fire, some persons who claimed to have witnessed the sad outbreak told LEADERSHIP Sunday that it was due to raptured pipeline. While others argued that the federal government did not do enough the protect the pipeline, others insisted that scoopers who wanted to make quick money only got what they bargained for.
Others attributed the incident to hunger in the land.
Last Monday, after, the narrative recorded a twist, no fewer than 50 youth from the affected communities stormed and barricaded gates of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) depot at Osisioma with a casket containing the body of one of the victims to protest the disaster.
After they observed a five-minute silence in honour of the deceased, they moved to the Enugu – Port Hacourt Express way where they locked down economic activities for hours before taking the body away for burial.
According to the youth, who carried placards with inscriptions such as, “NNPC must tell us what happened to our people,” “NNPC has committed genocide in Osisioma Ngwa,” “We are calling on the international community to come to our rescue,” “Enough of these deaths caused by the carelessness of NNPC,” the protest drew the attention of the management of the NNPC, the federal government and the general public to the disaster.
LEADERSHIP Sunday learned that the president of Osisioma Ngwa Youth Congress, Mr. Emma Nduagu in his speech at the venue denied any act of vandalism by the people, saying it was as a result of serious act of carelessness on the part of NNPC.
“Why should NNPC move products from abandoned pipeline? Let me make it clear that most of our people died right inside their houses.
We want the manager to withdraw that statement and explain himself within 24 hours or face the music. We have lost over one hundred people to this incident and we are not happy.”
Mr. Chuks Uzoechi, who works with UTM Ltd as pipeline surveillance guard who narated his ordeal while trying to escape from the scene, however considered himself lucky to have survived the disaster.
He lamented that his family house was raised down and that he was now left with only a pair of trouse, t-shirt, his cell phone, a touch light and a pair of rain boot and an overall jacket he wore to work before it occurred.
He said , “while I was on duty on that fateful Friday, at about 8 PM , I got information that there was leakage in one of the pipelines. “We called our bosses in charge in both Port Harcourt and Kaduna to report the matter but they said the corporation was no longer pumping products through the old pipeline.
In earnest, Uzoechi confirmed that the said pipeline had not been I’m, stating emphatically that it has also not been serviced for a period of time.
Another victim, Christian Nwanmuo, who survived the explosion with severe burns, said he came with his friends to scoop fuel from the pipeline and were returning for another round when the explosion occurred.
The victim who is now receiving attention at a hospital in the city, said poverty led him to scoop fuel from the leaking pipeline.
Narrating what heappened he said, “We were returning to scoop more fuel when the area exploded. Everywhere was on fire, but we were far from the scene. I was affected by the fire from the surrounding bushes. I was only saved because the container I was carrying had no fuel. “
“I know it was dangerous to scoop fuel from the pipeline, but poverty led me to the act. I wanted to raise money to buy a motorcycle to start Okada business.”
As if to corroborate the assertions of both the chairman and other leaders, the Deputy Chief Technical Officer of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Mr. Sani Balas, acknowledged that on inspection it was discovered that there were no holes dug around the pipeline as is the practice by vandals to gather and siphon petroleum products.
Since the dreaded incident, these communities have been opened to receiving high profile members of the society, who troop in a daily basis to commiserate with them.
Among them is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) vice presidential candidàte, Mr. Peter Obi, who called last Tuesday, after inspecting the scene, to announce a donation of N10 million from the Atiku Presidential Campaign Organisation (APCO) “to compliment other contributions of the government to address the disaster.”
The former governor of Anambra state said “When the presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar received the information, he directed me strictly to move to the scene to commiserate with both the communities and Abia State government. We are calling on all concerned to ensure those affected are compensated.
The orphans among them especially should be properly taken care of to alleviate their sufferings,” he further stated.
Speaking earlier, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, who along with Senator Enyi Abaraibe and Hon Solomon Adaelu,members representing Abia South senatorial district and Osisioma/Obingwa/Ugwunagbo federal constituencies respectively at the National Assembly, expressed shock over the level havoc caused by the fir. They assured that the government would make sure those responsible for it were brought to book.
His word, “It was most painful that those affected in one way or the other met their fate right in the confines of their homes. We are deeply saddened by the disaster and sympathise with you .
We want a report on the affected families in three weeks so that we can assist them,” the governor added.
As the people continue to count their losses, one question that has continued to beg for answer is when will Nigerians loose their thirst for spilled fuel.
Years ago, the quest led to the death of hundreds of people when a similar incident happened in Jesse, Lagos, Isuikwuato, and even the same Osisioma.
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