The fire of 25/6

While a high level committee has been formed to investigate the deadly incident in Ahmedpur East, one wonders if this could have been avoided

The fire of 25/6

The oil tanker tragedy leading to well above 160 deaths and a large number of critical injuries in Ahmedpur East has left the nation in a state of grief. In fact, the number of deaths is increasing by the day, since many of the injured have suffered third-degree burns and have low chances of survival. Families of several victims are still hopeful their missing relatives will be found -- most of those buried so far were disfigured beyond recognition and will only be identified once the results of DNA tests arrive.

Against this backdrop, an investigation of the incident is taking place, responsibility is being passed around and strategies to avoid similar incidents in the future are being devised. One camp is demanding an inquiry into the affairs of oil marketing companies and transporters; this is to find whether they are following the SOPs related to the transportation of hazardous materials. Another is criticising the concerned government departments for failing to disperse the crowd in time. And then there are those who hold the "careless" and "greedy" villagers responsible for their death and injuries.

This is why recapping the events of June 25 is necessary in order to highlight the reasons behind the incident, as well as the flaws or lack of contingency plans. Though a large number of people expired on the spot, there are some who have shared the details of what they saw that day.

Ayaz Mughal, a resident of Ahmedpur East who runs a catering business, tells TNS that the accident took place early in the morning. "Villagers came to know about the oil spill early in the morning as most were awake to perform various chores before the heat set in. They rushed to the scene with containers of different shapes and sizes. They called their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances through mobile phones to claim their share of the booty. Had the incident occurred at night the response of the people would not have been so quick," he believes.

One wonders whether the darkness would have made a difference. Ultimately, people would have arrived at the scene since the response from the local administration and district police was dismal and delayed. The Motorway Police could not disperse the adamant crowd, a task conventionally performed by district police and the reserve police force. The latter two only arrived after the damage was done.

One camp is demanding to find whether oil marketing companies are following the SOPs. Another is criticising the concerned government departments for failing to disperse the crowd in time. And then there are those who hold the "careless" and "greedy" villagers responsible for their death and injuries.

Mughal denies that any announcements were made from mosques urging people to reach the overturned tanker and collect oil. In fact he clarifies that speakers were used to warn people about the impending dangers of the flammable oil. His cousin Jamshed Mughal, a local journalist working for electronic media, has been missing since that fateful Sunday. The poor chap reached there just in time to cover the oil spill, he even made footage of people collecting the petrol.

A socioeconomic profile of the locals is relevant here. Residents of the affected area, situated along the highway in the rural part of Ahmedpur East, are mostly farm workers who hardly own any land, labourers, Qingqi rickshaw drivers, street vendors and small shop owners. They save around Rs500-600 per day on average. The level of literacy is low -- there are only a handful of schools in the vicinity for boys and almost none for girls. Reports launched recently on the status of education have shown Ahmedpur East to be low on the list and it has been termed as one of the least developed areas in South Punjab.

"Poverty is not the only reason that explains the dangerous behavior of those that set out to collect oil that day," says Ustad Tooti, a local cook. "There were [financially] better-off people as well who joined in simply because they were enjoying the whole activity and treating it as an adventure."

Tooti was present on the scene that day in search of his brothers-in-law. His family had worriedly called to tell him that both his brothers-in-law had left the house with containers to collect the spilled petrol at the risk of their lives. "I heard the driver shrieking for people to disperse as loud as a man possibly can, but people were simply not listening. I saw milkmen throw good milk on the ground to make space for petrol in their containers," says Tooti who, as yet, has found no trace of his brothers-in-law. He says he cannot forget the horrific images of fire engulfing everything in front of his eyes, nor can he erase the picture of people jumping into the mini stream nearby, their bodies on fire.

A First Information Report (FIR) has been registered on the complaint of a victim’s family in which the owner of the vehicle, the manager of the company and the deceased driver have been nominated. The offences mentioned in the FIR include rash driving or riding on a public way, causing hurt, impairment or injury, mischief causing financial damage or mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to cause damage to property or agricultural produce.

Zaman Khan Masood, vice chairman of Pakistan Oil Tankers’ Association, rejects these allegations and says that the clauses of the FIR make it appear as if the driver had planned the entire incident. "It was an accident, and the proof of this lies in the fact that the nominated driver, Gul Khan, has expired from burn injuries."

Masood says the real focus should by on the relevant departments’ failure to control the situation once the tanker had turned turtle. "The crowd should have, and could have been dispersed since it took the petrol a good 40 minutes to catch fire," he adds.

Masood denies that oil tanker owners do not take appropriate precautionary measures. He says once a tanker leaves the depot, it is the tanker company’s responsibility to ensure all safety measures and compliance with SOPs during the journey. "The movement of the tankers is monitored by the company-installed trackers." If the drivers over-speed or apply too many emergency breaks, the vehicle and the company can be blacklisted by the oil marketing company, he adds. He agrees that the skidding of the tanker can be blamed on the driver but controlling the situation after the accident was the responsibility of the government departments. "And they failed," says Masood.

An official in Punjab Police blames the Motorway Police for the loss of life, saying that it was their duty to act as first responders and they should have kept the people at bay. Once the villagers reached the container, he says, it was too late and the use of force to disperse them was impossible. He says that "since many people were drenched in petrol, being close to them was risky and this is why the policemen tried to control the situation from a distance. Aerial firing or tear gas shelling could have ignited fire."

The Punjab Police official says that although it is suspected that the fire was caused by a live cigarette butt, it is equally likely that sparking from a motorcycle could have done the damage. "Petrol fumes are spread and suspended in the air and can catch flame even from a distance," he adds.

On the other hand, staffers of the Motorway Police claim they did their best to control the situation but people were unmanageable. It was an issue of awareness more than anything else, they claim.

It is against this backdrop that a high level committee has been formed by the Punjab Chief Minister. The committee has been tasked to inquire the possible cause of blast in the overturned oil tanker, its mechanical condition and the driving capacity (including duty hours) of the driver, the role of local police, Motorway Police and local administration during the interval between overturning of oil tanker and the fatal blast, compliance or not of the SOPs already in place for safe transportation of inflammable material and so on. The report is expected to be released this week.

Asim Butt, Manager, Health, Safety & Environment at Mari Petroleum Company Limited, points out that SOPs are present even in cases of oil tanker rollovers. For example, he says, the lids on the tankers shall be sealed in order to avoid a spill. In this case the lid may have opened due to the intensity of the impact or some other reason. Butt says drivers are given loudspeakers to make warning announcements as well as paraphernalia to cordon off the affected area before the help arrives. Additionally, they must have emergency numbers that can be contacted all along their route. Whether these SOPs were followed is a question yet to be answered.

The fire of 25/6