16 still missing after Indonesia oil depot fire kills 15

PTI, Mar 4, 2023, 11:25 AM IST

Indonesian rescuers and firefighters on Saturday searched for possible victims under the rubble of charred houses and buildings after a large fire broke out at a fuel storage depot in the capital, killing at least 15 people and leaving 16 others missing.

The Plumpang fuel storage station, operated by state-run oil and gas company Pertamina, is near a densely populated area in the Tanah Merah neighborhood in North Jakarta. It supplies 25% of Indonesia’s fuel needs.

At least 260 firefighters and 52 fire engines managed to extinguish the blaze just before midnight on Friday after a fire spread through the neighborhood for more than two hours, fire officials said. They were working to secure the area on Saturday.

Video of the fire broadcast on television late Friday showed hundreds of people in the community running in panic while thick plumes of black smoke and orange flames filled the sky and firefighters battled the blaze.

A preliminary investigation showed the fire broke out when a pipeline ruptured during heavy rain, possibly from a lightning strike, said Eko Kristiawan, Pertamina’s area manager for the western part of Java.

Residents living near the depot said they smelled a strong odor of gasoline, causing some people to vomit, after which thunder rumbled twice, followed by a huge explosion around 8 p.m.

Sri Haryati, a mother of three children, said the fire began to spread in their neighborhood about 20 minutes later, causing sudden panic among residents.

“I was crying and immediately grabbed our valuable documents and ran with my husband and children,” Haryati said.

She said she heard smaller blasts that echoed across the residential neighborhood as orange flames jumped from the depot compound and columns of black smoke billowed.

Data from the Indonesian Red Cross’ command center said the death toll had been revised to 15 from 17 after authorities found that some victims were counted twice. Rescuers continued searching for 16 people who were reported missing or separated from their families amid the chaos. About 49 people were receiving treatment in five hospitals, some of them in critical condition.

Acting Jakarta Governor Heru Budi Hartono said about 600 displaced people were being taken to temporary shelters at government offices, a Red Cross command post, and a sports stadium.

Pertamina’s president director Nicke Widyawati apologized for the incident and said the company would provide help to affected communities.

She said the company is working closely with related institutions and law enforcement to investigate the cause of the fire at the depot.

“We will carry out a thorough evaluation and reflection internally to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” Widyawati said in a statement, adding that the company ensured the supply of fuel oil will be safe.

The company will utilize fuel supplies from a number of Pertamina’s fuel terminals on Java island and support the Cilacap and Balongan refineries, which are channeled by sea to Tanjung Priok terminal in North Jakarta.

As investigators tried to piece together what happened, grieving relatives went to a police hospital’s morgue in eastern Jakarta Saturday morning to identify loved ones. Officials said all of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

“The condition of corpses made them hard to recognize … they could only be identified through DNA and dental data,” said Trunoyudo Wisnu Andiko, the Jakarta Police spokesperson.

Friday’s fire was the second large blaze at the Plumpang fuel depot. In 2014, a fire engulfed at least 40 nearby houses, but no casualties were reported.

Fahmi Radhi, an energy analyst from Gajah Mada University, urged Pertamina and the government to immediately move the depot away from the nearby community settlements.

“Pertamina has been negligent by not using international standard security systems,” he said in an interview with Kompas TV. He said that since the 2014 fire there have been no efforts to put such a system in place and that regular inspections should be conducted to avoid future fires.

“Pertamina’s board of directors should be held responsible for this deadliest fire by being dismissed immediately,” Radhi said.

An oil spill in 2018 caused a fire that killed five people and sickened hundreds in the port city of Balikpapan. Authorities said it came from a broken pipe that Pertamina was using to transfer crude oil.

In March 2021, a fire at the Cilacap gasoline storage facility at the largest oil refinery on the main island of Java prompted the evacuation of 80 nearby residents and injured at least 20 people. Cilacap is one of six Pertamina refineries with a processing capacity of 270,000 barrels a day. Eight months later, more than 900 people were evacuated after a fire broke out at the Pertamina Balongan Refinery in West Java province.

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