• Police confirm seven deaths
By Bassey Inyang in Calabar
An early morning fire incident resulting from activities at a tank farm at the Calabar Free Trade Zone (CFTZ), Cross River State, has led to the death of 14 people.
It was feared that more people might have died as many others are feared missing, while those who sustained several degrees of injuries were taken to the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH) treatment.
Sources at the zone, and the Esuk Utan community which were seriously affected by the inferno, attributed it to the activities of illegal oil bunkerers who were syphoning petrol from one of the facilities of one of the numerous tank farms located in the CFTZ.
It was gathered that events leading to the fire incident started at about 2a.m., some moments after a vessel loaded with petrol was discharging the product into the tank farm from a distance of about one kilometre from the nearby Calabar River where it berthed.
A source from the affected company that owns the tank who pleaded not to be mentioned, disclosed that it was while the vessel was discharging the product that one of their staff identified as Sunny, connected a valve to the pipe supplying fuel to the tank farm in a desperate attempt to siphon petrol.
The source said luck, however, ran against the said Sunny as the pressure from the spot where he had punctured became forceful to the extent that he was knocked down by petrol which was gushing out uncontrollably.
It was gathered that Sunny, who the source said was not officially on duty, died on the spot.
It was gathered that the product which started flowing freely, filled the premises of the tank farm, and spilled over into the gutters, the river where the vessel docked, and the neighboring Esuk Utan community, which is the host community of the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), and the CFTZ
It was gathered that some members of the community who were awaken by the strong fumes of the petrol on realising that it was petrol that had flowed into the gutters started scooping until about 4a.m. when there was a sudden spark and the whole place was engulfed with fire.
Six persons were believed to have died on the spot at Esuk Utan, while the raging fire spread to other places and wreaked serious destruction to more lives and property.
However, with the use of sophisticated fire-fighting equipment, the raging fire which was heading towards the vessel was put off by the men on board it.
Though parts of the tank farm where the incident started was gutted by fire, firefighters at the CFTZ fought gallantly, using sophisticated equipment, to put it off before it could spread to other tank farm, and perhaps the entire zone, which plays host to the many companies.
But a nearby fishing settlement close to the river was not spared as seven persons who were residing there were said to have been burnt to death, just as the many engine and wooden boats were completely razed.
Three vessels that docked at the nearby NPA jetty were also not spared the rampaging effect of the early morning inferno.
Though it was a hectic time for journalists who rushed to the scene of the incident, as the entire area had been cordoned off, it was gathered that when final stock is taken the death toll would be nothing less than 30.
A staff of one of the tank farms in the area who spoke in this context, but pleaded not to be mention, said what happened resulted from illegal siphoning of petrol.
The staff said: “Almost 30 people that we have been able to confirm have died. So many have severe injuries and have been rushed to the hospital. I saw someone whose entire legs had melted in the fire. It was only his bones that were sticking out. I do not know if he would survive. It was very horrible. There was fire everywhere. Nobody knew where they would run to. Many other companies in this vicinity, and even inside the NPA have had one equipment or the other affected by the fire. The truth is that they were doing an illegal business there that is why there was no safety measure. In fact, there was no safety measure at all that is why the situation got out of hand. If it was a normal operation, I believe it could have been contained easily. It is something they have been doing all the time, but today was bad luck for them.
Commenting on the fire incident, the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Hafiz Inuwa, said the police can only confirm that seven persons died while nine sustained various degrees of injuries.
Inuwa said policeman were on ground there when the fire was raging, and they helped to extinguish the raging fire, and also cordoned the area to stop hoodlums, and other criminals from taking advantage of the situation to commit crime.
The commissioner who suspected foul play, said there might have been some form of conspiracy to siphon the petrol from one of the affected tank farm.
Inuwa said the police had already commenced thorough investigation into the remote and immediate cause of the fire incident and promised that any person found culpable will be made to face the law.