No fewer than 30 people were killed and many more injured when a fire broke out at the petroleum tank farm located within the Calabar Free Trade Zone (CFTZ) in Cross River State on Sunday, July 16. According to various media reports quoting eye witnesses, the fire started when a worker in one of two tank farms being supplied petrol by a ship opened a valve to siphon petrol but was knocked down by the force of the pressure from the pipe and killed. This reportedly caused petrol to flow into gutters around the area and residents of nearby communities, especially Esuk Utan community, start scooping it with various containers as if on cue. They didn’t know what hit them when the whole area went up in flames.
However, the source of the fire remains uncertain: some witnesses said that it was caused by a spark from a metal bucket being used by one of those scooping the fuel and others said it was caused by fire from a cigarette. The back and forth is irrelevant now as the deed is already done; thirty precious lives had been cut short in their prime.
It would have been perhaps a bit comforting if this terrible incident was a one-off thing but it is not – cases of people dying by fire while scooping fuel has become a very rampant phenomenon. On November 4, 2012, no fewer than 20 individuals scooping fuel were burnt to death in Umuokpo in Amairinabuo Community of Obingwa Local Government Area of Abia State when a fuel tanker exploded.
This disturbing trend is, of course, not limited to Nigeria. In eastern Pakistan, more than 150 persons were confirmed killed as they were scooping fuel from a fallen tanker which exploded. The body count included men, women and children. 73 motorbikes, several cars and other properties were destroyed in the inferno. At least 93 people were killed and dozens wounded in a tanker fire in Mozambique on November 17, 2016. Most of the victims were scooping fuel from the tanker. Perhaps the most deadly of these cases was a tanker fire in South Sudan on September 16, 2015, in which 203 people died and 150 were injured following an accident involving an oil tanker. Again, most of the victims were scooping fuel from the tanker.
Quite unfortunately, it has become the norm for Nigerians to scoop fuel from fallen tankers and anywhere else it can be freely obtained. Motorists on the Asese end of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway were caught in traffic for about eight hours on April 7, 2016 as dozens of people scooped fuel from a fallen tanker. On August 16, 2015, Boluwaji area of the same Lagos-Ibadan Expressway was a chaotic scene as residents scrambled to scoop fuel from a fallen tanker. Scores of people including security agents freely scooped fuel from a fallen tanker at Grail Land area of Ajuwon on the outskirts of Lagos on January 28, 2016. More recently, Akure residents trooped out in their hundreds to scoop fuel from a fallen tanker at the Isinkan Roundabout area of the city on April 22, 2017. So desperate have people become in this unwholesome practice that some go to the extent of vandalising oil pipelines to siphon fuel, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
However, as in many of these incidents, victims of the earlier-mentioned fire incident of November 4, 2012 in Abia state were advised against scooping fuel from the fallen tanker. According to Daily Sun, a community leader in whose frontage the tanker fell, Chief Friday Erengwa, said, “Immediately the incident occurred, villagers rushed to scoop fuel and despite the fact that I came out from my house to warn them against the dangers inherent, they did not listen. Even the driver of the tanker made every effort to dissuade the villagers from scooping fuel from the tanker, but they turned a deaf ear.”
Many reasons have been adduced for this penchant among people for scooping free fuel: poverty, illiteracy, greed and so on. But according to the South-South Zonal Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Umesi Emenike, petroleum tanker fire tragedies could be avoided if people controlled their urge for quick money.
He added that lessons ought to have been learnt from previous cases of petroleum fire and people should by now be able to identify the dangers associated with scooping fuel from fallen tankers and resist the temptation.
Unless people learn to avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by siphoning fuel, needless loss of lives will continue.