16 are still missing after an oil campfire in Indonesia killed 15

Indonesian rescue workers and firefighters searched for possible victims under the rubble of charred houses and buildings on Saturday after a large fire broke out at a fuel depot in the capital, killing at least 15 people and missing 16 others.

Operated by state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina, the Plumpang Fuel Storage Station is located near a densely populated area in the Tanah Merah district of North Jakarta. It provides 25% of Indonesia’s fuel needs.

At least 260 firefighters and 52 fire engines were able to extinguish the blaze just before midnight on Friday after a blaze spread through the neighborhood for more than two hours, firefighters said. They were busy securing the area on Saturday.

Video of the fire televised late Friday showed hundreds of people in the community running in panic as thick plumes of black smoke and orange flames filled the sky and firefighters battled the blaze.

A preliminary investigation found the fire started when a pipeline ruptured during heavy rain, possibly by a lightning strike, said Eko Kristiawan, Pertamina’s area manager for western Java.

Local residents living near the depot said they noticed a strong smell of gasoline that made some people vomit, followed by two rumbles of thunder, followed by a huge explosion around 8 p.m

Sri Haryati, a mother of three, said the fire started spreading around her neighborhood about 20 minutes later, causing sudden panic among residents.

“I cried and immediately grabbed our valuable documents and ran away with my husband and children,” Haryati said.

She said she heard smaller explosions echoing through the residential area as orange flames leapt from the depot compound and columns of black smoke rose.

According to data from the Indonesian Red Cross Command Center, the death toll was revised from 17 to 15 after authorities realized that some victims had been double-counted. Rescuers continued to search for 16 people who were reported missing or separated from their families amid the chaos. About 49 people were treated in five hospitals, some of them in critical condition.

Acting Jakarta governor Heru Budi Hartono said about 600 displaced people were being taken to temporary accommodation at government offices, a Red Cross command post and a sports stadium.

Pertamina President and Director Nicke Widyawati apologized for the incident and said the company would help affected communities.

She said the company is working closely with related institutions and law enforcement agencies to investigate the cause of the fire at the depot.

“We will conduct thorough assessment and reflection internally to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” Widyawati said in a statement, adding that the company has ensured the supply of fuel oil is secure.

The company will use fuel stocks from several Pertamina fuel terminals on Java Island and support the Cilacap and Balongan refineries, which will be routed by sea to the Tanjung Priok terminal in North Jakarta.

As investigators tried to find out what happened, grieving relatives went to the morgue of a police hospital in east Jakarta on Saturday morning to identify their loved ones. Officials said all the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

“The condition of the bodies made them difficult to recognize…they could only be identified from DNA and dental data,” said Jakarta Police spokesman Trunoyudo Wisnu Andiko.

Friday’s fire was the second major fire at the Plumpang tank farm. In 2014, a fire engulfed at least 40 nearby homes, but no casualties were reported.

Fahmi Radhi, an energy analyst from Gajah Mada University, urged Pertamina and the government to move the depot from nearby community settlements immediately.

“Pertamina acted negligently by not using international standard security systems,” he said in an interview with Kompas TV. He said there had been no effort to put such a system in place since the 2014 fire and regular inspections should be carried out to prevent future fires.

“The board of Pertamina should be held accountable for this deadliest fire by being fired immediately,” Radhi said.

An oil spill in 2018 caused a fire in the port city of Balikpapan that killed five and sickened hundreds. Authorities said it came from a broken pipe that Pertamina used to transport crude oil.

In March 2021, a fire at the Cilacap petrol storage facility at the main oil refinery on the main island of Java led to the evacuation of 80 nearby residents and injured at least 20 people. Cilacap is one of six Pertamina refineries with a processing capacity of 270,000 barrels per day. Eight months later, more than 900 people were evacuated after a fire broke out at the Pertamina Balongan refinery in West Java province.

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