Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Death toll in oil pipeline fire reaches at least 50: witness

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 22:23 Ko Wild

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - An oil fire that started on Sunday as villagers in central Burma skimmed fuel from a leaking pipeline is under control, villagers and police have said. At least 15 people died and up to 100 were injured in the initial blast, hospital staff and police added,

One villager today however said that as many as 50 had died, and that the blaze was only extinguished this morning.

A leaking section of the oil pipeline reportedly exploded when an unsuspecting villager neared locals collecting crude oil spilling from a faulty joint in the pipe, according to Myitchay sub-township police, near Nyaunghla village, Myitchay, in Pakokku district, Magway Division, central Burma.

The BBC had reported yesterday however that residents - speaking anonymously to the Associated Press news agency - said the huge explosion went off when a villager had struck a match to see how much oil had been collected in drums near the pipeline, which linked Kyaukkhet village to Ayadaw Township in Sagaing Division further north.

At least 13 oil collectors from the villages of Nyaunghla, Theindaw, Aigyi and Kangyisu died instantly in the blast and about 100 people were seriously injured, according to sources from Myitchay police station and Myitchay hospital.

Myitchay, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) north of the ancient city of Pagan, is at the centre of Burma’s onshore oil industry.

The people had gathered to collect the leaked oil as they could fetch about 2,500 kyat (US$2.50) per gallon (3.8 litres), a villager said.

A welded joint in the more than 10-year-old section of the 10-inch (25-centimetre) diameter pipeline started leaking on Sunday, and residents from nearby villages had gathered to collect the valuable commodity when then the blast occurred at about 7 p.m. on Sunday evening.

“The fire didn’t spread anywhere but was fueled from the oil soaked into the ground so it was difficult to extinguish. It is still burning a little and couldn’t yet be doused completely. Now they are piling earth on the site with a bulldozer,” an officer from Myitchay police station late yesterday told Mizzima, on condition of anonymity. He failed to specify who “they” were.

About six fire engines from Pakokku, Kyunchaung, Chauk and Myitchay towns rushed to the scene and worked to extinguish the fire, bringing it under control yesterday, police said.

“The pipeline is made of steel but because of rust and normal wear and tear, it began leaking. The situation was worsened by floods and landslides at a nearby creek. An unsuspecting man had brought his lighted cheroot close to people struggling to collect the leaked oil when the blast went off … the case has not yet been registered,” the policeman said.

A Myitchay resident who was at the scene after the blaze said, “I found six bodies there. The injured people had serious burns and some were left with only a little hair. The rest had burns over the entire bodies. Children, men and women are among them,” the officer said.

Reports yesterday said the injured were admitted to Myitchay, Kyunchaung and Pakokku hospitals. A doctor from the 16-bed Myitchay sub-township hospital told Mizzima 62 patients were initially brought to his hospital but that 47 patients in critical condition had been transferred to Pakokku. A man and a woman had succumbed to their injuries at his hospital, he said.

However, one Myitchay resident today gave a very different account of the timing for the fire being put out and the overall casualty toll.

“Many people died in the incident. The fire was only extinguished this morning and villagers found about 40 human skulls where the fire had broken out,” the resident told Mizzima. “Nine more villagers died of their injuries at Pakkoku Hospital this morning, a doctor said … more than 50 people died in the fire.”

Contradictory information was also received today from the policeman at Myitchay police station, who said the fire was extinguished at 11:55 p.m. last night and that the exact casualty toll remained unknown.

Mizzima yesterday repeatedly tried in vain to contact Pakokku hospital and Pakokku fire brigade to obtain further details about the patients.

Meanwhile, a gas pipeline near Kyunchaung where the government-owned fertiliser plant staff live, had also burst but there was no fire, a villager said yesterday.

Villagers from Kyaukhwet, 30 miles from Myitchay, fist dug oil wells in the area using China-made engines and crown wheels from car differential gearing about 10 years ago while General Khin Nyunt was still prime minister. When the amateur drillers struck oil, the ruling military government seized the field, designating it a government-owned venture, a villager said.

The officials concerned had never monitored safety or the integrity of the pipeline since its construction 10 years ago, he said.

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