It was weeping and wailing in Okogbe village, near Mbiama in Ahoada West Local Government Area of Rivers State Thursday as the charred remains of more than 200 people littered the community along the East-West Road.
Although the Zonal Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Emenike Umesi, put the casualty figures at 95 dead and 18 injured, eyewitnesses said the dead were more than 100, while those injured were about 35. Rivers State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Samson Parker, said he counted more than 200 corpses.
In a swift reaction to the disaster, President Goodluck Jonathan, who Thursday expressed sadness at the loss of lives caused by the explosion, ordered federal relief and health agencies to do everything possible to provide medical attention for the survivors.
However, those who perished in the incident and were burnt beyond recognition were promptly buried at the scene of the explosion.
According to eyewitnesses, of the 95 confirmed dead, 87 were given a mass burial, while the remaining corpses were claimed by their families.
The dead and injured were victims of an explosion from a fuel-laden tanker that had skidded off the road at about 6.30 am, spilling its content while trying to avoid a head-on collision with a Toyota Corolla car.
THISDAY gathered that when the accident happened, the villagers rushed to the scene to scoop fuel from the upturned tanker.
But while they were busy filling their jerry cans, a spark occurred resulting in the outbreak of a fire and subsequent explosion of the tanker that sent the villagers to their untimely death.
When THISDAY visited the scene of the accident, thick billows of smoke were still billowing into the air while the area was rancid with the smell of burnt flesh.
Also, over 25 motorcycles belonging to Okada riders who were scooping fuel, a Mitsubishi commercial bus, as well as the tanker were completely burnt, even as smoke was still billowing from the tanker at around 12 noon.
Villagers were also seen looking for their friends and relatives, praying that they were not among some of the charred bodies that littered the area.
There was heavy traffic along the Ahoada/Mbiama axis of the East-West road leading to Bayelsa, Delta and Edo States, leaving travellers and other motorists trapped in a gridlock for about three hours before the intervention of security operatives and officials of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC).
Earlier, the Rivers State Police Command, through its Public Relations Officer, Ben Ugwegbulam, confirmed the incident, but could not give the official casualty figure.
But the state Sector Commander, FRSC, Kayode Olagunju, confirmed that 93 persons died. In a text message, Olagunju said: "There is a major fatal crash at Okogbe about 11 kms from Ahoada-Mbiama on the East-West Road in Rivers State. The accident occurred around 06.30 hrs. A tanker laden with petrol crashed with three other vehicles.
"A Toyota Corolla with registration number RQ 218 AAA, Hummer bus with number and a Mitsubishi, 34 motorcycles also got burnt. People were scooping fuel from the fell tanker, when the tanker exploded. FRSC, police, fire service, JTF are at the scene. Final casualty figures on the Okogbe tanker crash incident: 93 died on the spot (burnt), 2 died in hospital. 18 persons were injured."
Chief Press Secretary to Governor Chibuike Amaechi, Mr. David Iyofor, told THISDAY that the governor was saddened by the incident and had cut short his official engagements in Abuja to rush to the scene of the incident.
This is the second fire incident that has claimed several lives in Rivers State in three months. Six people, including a family of four, were burnt to death while 24 houses and four vehicles were also burnt in another fuel tanker disaster that occurred last March at the Igwuruta roundabout in Ikwerre Local Government Area of the state along the Port Harcourt International Airport Road.
President Jonathan, meanwhile, expressed sadness over the loss of many lives caused by the tanker explosion Thursday.
In a statement signed by his Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, he said the president was particularly distraught by the fact that once again, so many Nigerian lives had been lost in an avoidable fuel fire disaster.
The president, according to Abati, 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.
"He conveys his sincerest condolences to the families of the victims, and the government and people of Rivers State," the statement said.
Commenting on the tragedy, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State said it was another case involving the loss of lives in such a magnitude and circumstance that was heart-rending and pathetic.
On behalf of the government and people of Anambra State, he condoled the government and people of Rivers State, describing the incident as very depressing and touching.
According to him, "In this your troubling time, I assure you that we share in your grief and pray God Almighty to grant you, especially President Goodluck Jonathan as the father of the nation, the governor of Rivers State, and all those directly affected by the incident, the fortitude to bear it, always trusting that the will of God is supreme at all times."