No fewer than 100 people were killed on Friday night after an illegal refinery went up in flames at Abaezi community in the Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State.
Also, six vehicles were razed during the incident which threw the community into mourning.
Hundreds of people, Sunday PUNCH observed, visited the scene of the incident on Saturday to have a glimpse of the unfortunate development.
Our correspondent counted no fewer than 50 bodies burnt beyond recognition at the scene of the fire explosion, which was said to have happened at about 8pm.
The state Commissioner for Petroleum Resources, Goodluck Opiah, told our correspondent at the crime scene that the state government had declared the owner of the illegal refinery, Okenze Onyenwoke, wanted.
He advised the suspect whom he said was on the run to surrender himself at the nearest police station.
The Commissioner said, “This is a sad development. The Imo State Government has declared wanted Okenze Onyenwoke, who owns this illegal refinery. I advise him to hand himself over to the police or any security agency.
“This is wickedness; this is an economic sabotage. It is also destroying our youths. I therefore call on the youths to go away from this kind of illegitimate business. There are so many legitimate businesses one could do to make genuine money.”
An Indigene of the community, who identified himself simply as Ejike, told Sunday PUNCH that every person at the illegal refinery site was killed in the explosion, adding that over 100 people lost their lives in the incident.
Ejike added that those who survived the explosion and were rushed to the hospital died on Saturday morning.
“No single person survived. Those who were rescued yesterday have all died this morning. The casualty figure is over 100. This is sad. People are rushing to look for their relations but the unfortunate thing is that the victims were burnt beyond recognition,” Ekije said.
Another indigene of the community, who identified himself as a local security operative, said people came from the South-East and South-South states to buy the illegal product in the community.
He said, “People come from Rivers, Bayelsa, Anambra, Abia states, even from Onitsha, to buy the product. It is a very active bunkering site. People come here in hundreds and the owner is a big man.
“This bunkering is sited right in the forest so that they will have liberty to do the illicit business. People troop from far and near to buy the product.”
A community leader, who refused to mention his name ostensibly to avoid been attacked by the syndicate involved in illegal oil refining in the area, lamented the environmental hazard caused in the communities by the illicit business.
He said, “Our community is in serious trouble. The level of environmental hazard is unbearable. Do you know that our crops are affected by this bunkering business?
“Do you know that our water now has taste as a result of this illegal bunkering? Do you know that even our cassava is affected by this activity? This is a campaign even you the media people have to help us fight. Our health, environment and means of livelihood are endangered.”
Also, the spokesman for a vigilante group in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area, Godknows Nkem, confirmed the incident to our correspondent.
The incident happened at a location between Abacheke and Abaezi communities.
Videos and pictures of the incident were already awash on the internet.
It was gathered that some of the victims were caught by the fire while they were running and trying to escape.
Unidentified burnt bodies littered the area even as family members were seen moving away the remains of their loved ones.
A community leader and President-General of the Supreme Council of Oil and Gas Producing Areas in Imo, Chief Collins Ajie, described the incident as ‘unfortunate’.
“It is unfortunate. A tragedy no one dreamt of where about 108 people got burnt beyond recognition due to illegal oil bunkering. The state and Federal Governments should step up efforts to stop this illegal bunkering because it has claimed many lives from Ohaji/Egbema and other Niger Delta areas.
“It’s shocking to see these bodies lying down here. Most of them are bread winners of their families. Most of them are young promising people, undergraduates and graduates,” he said.
The community leader noted that the Imo Government had some time ago made efforts to stop this illegal business, but it yielded no fruit.
According to him, some arrests were made, and some trucks and some boats impounded and burnt, yet it had not been able put the situation under control perhaps as a result of the involvement of high calibre individuals involved in the illegal trade.
He advised the state and Federal Governments to step up efforts at ending the illegal business.
“On our way coming, you could count about 34 checkpoints awaiting the illegal bunkerers and traders. So, If we have that figure and this illegal bunkering continued on a daily basis, then they have questions to answer,” he said.
Also speaking, Mr David Chibuike lamented that he was at the site in search of the remains of his elder sister.
“I heard the information about the incident and I had to rush down because my sister, who was married to someone in this community, was involved. I came to identify her body but couldn’t recognize her here,” he said while shedding tears.
He also called on government and security agencies to put an end to the illegal bunkering to prevent such huge loss of lives.
CP orders probe into incident
The Commissioner of Police in Imo State, Muhammed Berde, has ordered investigation into the Friday night’s fire outbreak at an illegal refinery located in a forest at Abaezi community in the Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area of the state which claimed no fewer than 100 lives.
Speaking to our correspondent in a telephone conversation, the police spokesperson for the Command, Micheal Abattam, told our correspondent that the cause of the fire outbreak had not been ascertained.
He therefore disclosed that the CP had order an investigation for the cause of the inferno be unravelled.