In 1998, Nigeria's worst fire outbreak killed 1098 people in Delta State
On October 18, an open pipeline in Jesse, Delta exploded in an inferno that raged for five days and killed over a thousand people.
On the second track of his 1975 “Expensive Shit” album, “Water no get enemy”, Fela tells us how water is the universal element.
The story goes that civilisation truly began when man discovered fire and built the wheel, but no-one would be surprised that this is not a sentiment he would share about fire.
For the over 1000 people who died in a gas explosion in the town of Jesse, Delta State, fire was the ultimate enemy.
On October 18, 1998, life began in the sleepy town of Jesse, a town in Ethiope West Local Government Area of oil-rich Delta state, like it would have on any other day. The town is surrounded by farmland, as are two neighbouring villages, Mossogar and Oghara.
Like many villages in the area, a major oil pipeline passes, on land, through Jesse. It carries petroleum products from the oil refinery in the city of Warri, 200 miles southeast of the commercial capital of Lagos to the northern city of Kaduna, nearly 400 miles away.
Late that afternoon, an open spot on the pipeline erupted in a large gas explosion that would over the course of a week or more, left 1098 people dead.
A hell of our own making
Pipeline vandalism is a common practice in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, as it has been for decades. The oil-rich area is home to many multinationals who pump billions in dollars in crude every year.
Yet, a culture of corruption and government misrule have left the area underdeveloped and many impoverished.
With their land destroyed by the effects of environmental pollution, young and old are left with few opportunities and often turn to vandalising pipelines to syphon oil and hold the government to ransom.
Accounts differ on how the fire started. Officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation claimed that tools used by the oil vandals had caused a spark, setting the pipeline alight and setting the pipeline alight.
Some residents claimed that the government had left the pipeline without maintenance for a long period and a cigarette butt had ignited the fire.
Either way, witnesses say that they heard a loud roar and the fire crawled quickly around the area.
Oil spills are common in the area, as are black puddles where crude seeps through the soil. Coupled with a burst pipeline, the fire spread quickly across the town.
There were no official reports but after the first day, journalists on the scene reported that the inferno had killed at least 250 people, destroyed villages and charred surrounding cropland.
Many of the dead were villagers who had been going around the daily lives or sleeping when the fire spread to meet them.
Pipeline vandals also died in the inferno, bodies had been found clutching small basins, cups and buckets ostensibly used to collect oil from pipelines.
We started a fire we could not fight
The country was, at the time, in a period of military rule with General Abdulsalam Abubakar at the helm of the Armed Forces Ruling Council.
After local resources failed to make an impact, the federal government sent in helicopters and firefighting equipment to douse the fire.
By the morning of the second day, October 19, it had spread to Mossogar and Oghara.
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By this time, the death toll had risen considerably; there were 230 bodies in one pile at the scene, journalists said. Residents said at least a dozen more bodies had already been taken away by relatives.
Some of the persons taken to hospitals for medical attention had already passed.
The government, overwhelmed, directed its efforts towards damage control. It encouraged people in neighbouring villages to leave.
Most of the bodies recovered from the scene were charred beyond recognition so Navy Commander Walter Feghabo, military governor of Delta State, ordered a mass burial.
‘’I feel terrible,’’ Emmanuel Akhihiero, a government petroleum official, told the AFP on October 19. ‘’I cannot believe what I have seen. Corpses, corpses.’’
On the night of the 19th, the military governor said that firefighters were struggling to contain the fire in neighbouring villages.
This period in Nigerian history will not be remembered for the abundance of infrastructure or the strength of our institutions and bodies.
After it had raged for 5 days, an American fire-fighting team was able to quell the fire with a nitrogen-rich foam.
It should have ended there but too much damage had been done for the chapter to be so easily closed.
Did we learn anything?
Weeks after the explosion, the death toll continued to rise. Bodies were recovered. Many of those with injuries died while in hospitals.
Some of these people had fled the clinics in fear of getting arrested by the Nigerian government on suspicions that they had ignited the blaze.
Together with those buried in mass graves, over 300 of them and bodies recovered by friends and family, the death toll would come to 1,098 people.
Over time, our culture has never encouraged the turning of history’s pages, more so in contemporary times. Looking back on the past is subtly discouraged, even in our educational system, evidently mostly by the absence of the subject from secondary school syllabus.
Still, even this cannot be blamed for the sad reality that the risk factors that led to this under-reported tragedy are still common.
Pipeline vandalism is still a culture in the Niger-Delta. Over-land pipelines have been discouraged in high-density areaswith oil companies and governments looking new methods of conveying oil and petroleum products.
During a visit on October 19, Head of State Abdulsalami Abubakar promised to provide the necessary support to give aid, in addition, to develop solutions to prevent these types of tragedies from occurring again.
Yet, as the number of pipeline explosions which followed will tell you, not much was really done, at least not what matters.
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