There was tension in Port Harcourt on Friday as residents of the Rivers State capital witnessed a cocktail of fire incidents in four different locations.
While residents around Abuloma Jetty were jolted by the explosion of a vessel that claimed the lives of at least 30 persons, workers of Rivers State Newspaper Corporation lost property worth millions of naira as fire gutted the second floor of The Tide Newspaper building located on Ikwerre Road.
Also, the Engineering Department of a Port Harcourt-based radio station, Rhythm FM, was razed by an early morning fire that had made the station to go off air.
At Eneka, operatives of the Joint Military Task Force codenamed ‘Operation Pulo Shield’ set fire to five tankers loaded with illegally refined oil, completing the blend of fire incidents in Port Harcourt in a day.
On the explosion of a vessel at the Abuloma Jetty, it was gathered that the occupants of the ship, excluding three persons who escaped, were dead.
An eyewitness, who identified himself as Gideon, told SATURDAY PUNCH that members of the crew, some ladies suspected to be students of tertiary institutions in Port Harcourt, were among those who lost their lives in the explosion.
The ladies, according to Gideon, were on their way to spend the weekend with their friends and relatives offshore before they met their untimely death.
A resident of Abuloma, Mr. Jame Israel, who witnessed the incident, said the blast occurred about 9.30 am as a result of the maintenance work being carried out in the vessel by welders.
“The welders were trying to seal an opening to block a leakage on the deck of the vessel’s fuel tank and in the process, the vessel exploded. The welders died, but we cannot ascertain how many people died inside the vessel,” Israel added.
Another eyewitness, who identified himself as Ifeanyi, said the explosion threw one of the welders above the vessel before he (welder) landed into the fire that sent a heavy smoke into the air.
“I saw it; the impact of the explosion pushed one of the person suspected to be the welder very high before he landed back into the fire. The explosion caused the buildings around this place to vibrate.
“When we heard the sound, we initially thought it was a bomb blast from a terrorist group. But we later learnt that the explosion occurred as a result of the welding work being done in the ship,” Ifeanyi said.
The Rivers State Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission, Kayode Olagunju, said, “An oil vessel around 9.45 hours caught fire and exploded at the Abuloma Waterfront in Port Harcourt.
“The fire is still restricted to water areas. FRSC, NEMA, police, fire service and other rescue agencies are on the ground. Casualty figure is not yet known. We shall keep you posted.”
The state Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency, Mr. Emenike Umesi, said the agency did not get any casualty figure.
Umesi told SATURDAY PUNCH that it was not certain if people were trapped in the vessel, promising that figures of casualties would soon be released.
At The Tide office, the editor of the paper, Mr. Soye Jamabo, said fire gutted the second floor of the building about 2 am, destroying vital documents.
Jamabo added that fire fighters across the road tried to put out the fire to no avail as their pipe was not long enough to get to the second floor of the building.
Similarly, the state Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Mr. Okpaka Dokubo, explained that the state-owned fire service officials were helpless as their equipment failed them at a critical time.
“The fire fighters came, but their equipment were ineffective. Their water pipe could not go beyond the first floor of the building. If not for the intervention of fire fighters from Total, the entire building would have been razed,” Okpaka stated.
The state Commissioner for Information and Communication, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, who visited Tide, was said to have directed workers to go home pending when they would get instructions from the government.
In another development, JTF operatives had set five tankers loaded with suspected illegally refined oil on fire in Atali on Rumuokwurusi-Igwuruta Road.
The JTF troop had impounded the five tankers within the area in the night and had directed that they should be driven to the bush where they were set ablaze.
It was gathered that the JTF ignored entreaties from residents that buildings around the area could be affected by the fire.
Spokesperson for the JTF, Operation Pulo Shield, Capt. Sunday Samuel, said the tankers were involved in illegal bunkering, adding that the mandate of the JTF was to destroy products seized from illegal bunkerers.Samuel stated that six persons were arrested in the process of impounding the tankers, adding that the suspects would soon be handed over to appropriate authorities for further investigation and prosecution