Abuja, Port Harcourt and Yenagoa — At least 100 people most of them scooping up petrol from a crashed tanker were killed yesterday when the tanker caught fire in Rivers State.
Most of the victims were bike-taxi riders populary known as 'Okada' and young girls hawking banana in the vicinity, who joined in the scramble to collect fuel from the fallen tanker.
Dozens of other people were badly burnt in the incident, causing fears that the death toll may climb.
Witnesses said the tanker crashed at about 6am after swerving to avoid a collision with other oncoming vehicles including a bus on the East-West highway at Okogbe in Ahoada West Local Government Area.
Soon after the crash, locals flocked to the scene to scoop out the spilling petrol but fire broke out one and a half hours later.
The tanker was heading towards Mbiama, a border town between Rivers and Bayelsa states, while the bus that is belived to have caused the crash as it tried to overtake another vehicle was moving towards Port Harcourt.
"When the tanker fell, some Okada men and girls selling within the environment alerted their friends and other villagers and they were busy scooping the fuel
before the fire started and burnt all of them to ashes," witness Saviour John told Daily Trust.
Hundreds flocked the area, burnt bodies were seen being evacuated and the tanker was still smouldering at the time our correspondents visited yesterday.
Sector commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission in Rivers State, Kayode Olagunju, confirmed to Daily Trust that 93 people died on the spot while two victims had been taken to the hospital for treatment.
"The accident happened around 6.30am in Okogbe community about 10.5km from Ahoada West local government area. Ninety-three people died on
the spot while two were rushed to the hospital. The accident involved four vehicles, a petroleum tanker, a Toyota Corolla and a bus," he said.
But Rivers State information commissioner Ibim Semenitari told AFP news agency "more than 100 people were killed in the inferno from the petrol tanker, while around 50 with severe burns have been hospitalised."
For his part, sector commander of the FRSC in Bayelsa State said he could not immediately ascertain the numbers of the victims as more bodies where being evacuated from the bush.
Yusha'u Shuaibu, spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said 95 bodies were recovered and 18 victims were on admission in hospitals.
A report said soldiers from the Joint Task Force have reached the crashed site before the fire and warned people to clear off but many ignored the warning.
The JTF "got to the scene before us. They warned people to leave the scene to avoid disaster. But many of them were busy scooping fuel. They disobeyed," NEMA official Emenike Umesi said, accroding to AFP.
Major accidents, often involving large-haul trucks, are common in Nigeria, where many of the roads are in terrible condition.
In March, a petrol tanker caught fire after skidding off the road in Port Harcourt, killing six people and injuring several others.
In April last year, a fuel tanker overturned at an army checkpoint at Narabi, Bauchi State, sparking an inferno in which some 50 people were killed.
More than 17,000 people died in about 31,000 road accidents across Nigeria between 2007 and 2009, according to FRSC's 2010 report, the most recent published.
Meanwhile, President Jonathan said he was "deeply saddened" by the loss of lives in the tanker fire.
His spokesman Reuben Abati said in a statemnet: "President Jonathan is particularly distraught by the fact that once again, so many Nigerian lives have been lost in an avoidable fuel fire disaster.
"The President has directed federal relief and health agencies to do everything possible to ensure that all those who survived the explosion with burns and injuries receive prompt and effective medical attention."
Hope Abah, Bashiru Abdullahi, Abdul-Rahman Abubakar, Abdulkadir Badsha Mukhtar