Although Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest oil producer, the country remains fuel-starved, with a petroleum industry marked by corruption. Nigerian refineries need repair, black-market gasoline is often marked up 1,000 percent, and lines at gas pumps can last for days.
On Saturday, October 17th, explosion and fire erupted in Jesse, Nigeria while about two thousand people were trying to collect gasoline spilling from a damaged government-owned pipeline. The fire continued to blaze until October 23rd, when U.S. firefighters finally extinguished it.
The death toll was initially estimated at a couple hundred, but within a few days it reached 700, with more deaths expected since many victims refused to seek professional help for fear that they would be arrested for vandalizing the pipeline or stealing gasoline. Walter Fejhabo, the military government's regional administrator, claimed that no arrests would be made, while a Nigerian newspaper suggested that only those implicated in opening the pipeline would have charges pressed against them. A town crier relayed the government promise not to arrest the villagers, which prompted at least 18 more victims to return to the hospital. The overall death toll was upwards of 1,000, at least 300 of which were unidentifiable and, as a result, given a mass burial.
Officials of NNPC, the state-owned oil company to which the pipeline belongs, blamed the disaster on the growing incidence of vandalized pipelines, theft and politically motivated sabotage by restive locals in Nigeria's southeast oil region who feel cheated of the wealth pumped from their land. It is not uncommon for petroleum pipelines in Nigeria to be sabotaged as a protest for greater financial assistance from the government and to collect the fuel to use and sell. Jesse community leaders, however, said the blast was not because of sabotage, but instead resulted from neglect for the pipeline facility. The cause of the explosion was also debated, as Government officials believed scavengers' tools set it off, while some news reports blamed a lit cigarette.
In November, the community demanded $116 million in compensation from the government. In addition to the numerous casualties, the flames also destroyed valuable trees and farm produce. In December, four suspects were arrested and charged with vandalizing the pipeline and triggering the leak which caused the fire.
October 17, 1998- Gas fire erupts saturday night in Jesse, Nigeria as many villagers were collecteding spilled gasoline from a burst pipeline. Witnesses heard a loud roar and saw flames spread quickly as the spill spread.
October 18- Firefighters continue to battle the fire.
October 19- Still, the fire has not burned out. No official death toll but expected to be in the hundreds. Reports of corpses, many women and children, found still clutching cups and cans to collect the spilled fuel. Gen. Abulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria's new military leader, visits the site.
October 21- Death toll at 700, expected to rise as high as 1000 due to insuffiecient medical facilities and the unwillingness of many vicitms to seek professional care for fear of being arrested for involvement (stealing gasoline, vandalizing the pipeline). Local officials promise there will be no arrests, but the powerful state petroleum corporation reportedly demands prosecution of those who cracked open the pipeline.
October 23- A U.S. firefighting company from the Houston, TX-based company BJ Services extinguishes the blaze with nitrogen-rich foam.
November 18- The community affected by the fire demands $116 million in compensation from the military government. The community indicts the state-owned oil company, NNPC, for not repairing the burst pipeline.
December 28- Four suspects appeared briefly in court in the southeastern
town of Warri. Nigerian authorities charge the suspects. After
their arraignment, the case is adjourned until Jan. 11, when the suspects
are expected to enter a plea.