How Negligence Led to Deaths of 20 Persons in Illegal Bayelsa Refinery Fire

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Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa

Fresh facts yesterday emerged as to how at least 20 persons were burnt beyond recognition penultimate Tuesday in an inferno at an illegal crude oil refining site in Kolo Creek, Ogbia Local Government Area, Bayelsa State.

Well over a week after the incident, none of the special security outfits deployed to fight illicit oil theft and refining in the Niger Delta region has issued a statement on the incident, but it was learnt yesterday that the agencies may have been aware of the existence of the site but declined to act.

The Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Delta Safe (OPDS) and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) are directly in charge of monitoring and curbing illegal bunkering, pipeline vandalism and proliferation of illegal refineries in the oil-rich region.

Quoting from a leaked memo copied the security commanders, a source informed THISDAY yesterday that since the 15th of September, the bodies responsible for stopping the illegal acts had been tipped about the activities of the bunkering syndicate.

“Information gathered revealed the presence of ongoing illegal refining of petroleum products like kerosene, diesel at Ebelebiri and Otuogwe, two communities in Ogbia Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, under the Kolo jurisdiction.

“The activities of these criminals constitute an economic sabotage to the nation as well as endangering lives and properties, as explosions on this pipeline may lead to disaster,” the letter written by the police top hierarchy in the state to both agencies indicated.

Also, more than a week after the incident happened, the charred remains of the victims were still said to be littering the site of the explosion which, it was learnt, was ignited from a stove that one of the illegal refiners was using to cook noodles.

“When we got there, I almost vomited. I saw charred remains of people. They were burnt beyond recognition. In some cases, you could only see dismembered heads and feet of victims.

“Despite the burnt bodies, we still met people illegally burning crude oil there,” the source, who declined to be named, said.

He added: “We thought that the security agencies, especially soldiers, would have taken over the place, but we didn’t meet any security operative.

“We only met people who were still refining illegally bunkered crude oil. It was terrible.”

Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) in the state, Mr. Asinim Butswat confirmed the explosion but declined the request to validate claims that the police authorities had dispatched letters to other security agencies alerting them on the danger of not clamping down on the illegal site.

Butswat said a “few persons” died while others sustained injuries, including just the three survivors.

An illegal refinery camp could have between 20 to 50 persons operating in such camps.

He said: “There was a fire outbreak at an illegal bunkering camp at Ebelebiri and Otuegwe II community. Few persons were feared to have been burnt to death while others sustained severe burns.

“Three persons who survived the inferno were rushed to the Cottage Hospital, Otuasiga for medical attention. They are Timi Gaji, male, 21, from Southern Ijaw; Benjamin Theophilus, male, 20, from Elebele community; and James Meshack, 21, from Delta State, but resides at Igbogene.”

When contacted, the JTF spokesman in the region, Major Ibrahim Abdullahi, said the allegation that his boss received a letter from the police but refused to act, remains a rumour which should be ignored.

“The Joint Task Force, Operation Delta Safe, is deployed in this region with the mandate to protect oil and gas infrastructure and deter/prevent militancy, sea robbery, crude oil theft and other forms of criminality within the joint operations area.

“Furthermore, the Joint Task Force, as the name suggests, comprises of all other Nigerian security agencies including the Nigerian Police. We urge you to disregard any rumour like this one because it is obviously mischievous and designed to achieve the peddler’s aim,” Abdullahi said.

Tragedy had struck in the camp, tucked away in the creeks, when a spark from a cooking stove caused the deadly fire in the highly inflammable environment.