Indonesia oil well explosion death toll climbs to 21

Damaged caused by fire from a burning illegal oil well is seen in Peureulak, Aceh Province, Indonesia, on April 25, 2018.
Damaged caused by fire from a burning illegal oil well is seen in Peureulak, Aceh Province, Indonesia, on April 25, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Peureulak, Indonesia (AFP) - The death toll from an oil well explosion in Indonesia has climbed to 21, with dozens of others in hospital, the authorities said on Thursday (April 26), as they extinguished the towering blaze.

The latest toll was more than double an initial count of 10 as more victims died of their injuries in hospital following the accident early on Wednesday morning.

An oil spill sparked a huge fire that shot up some 70m in the air, above homes and palm trees in a residential area on Sumatra island's Aceh province.

Several houses were also destroyed in the explosion in the village of Peureulak until the authorities finally managed to snuff out the blaze.

"The fire has been extinguished now... We are still monitoring the injured and the situation at the accident," said Henny Nurmayani, an official at Aceh's disaster mitigation agency.

Three dozen victims remain in hospital, she added.

The victims were collecting oil from around the entrance of the illegal old well bore when the fire erupted, police said.

The authorities are still investigating the accident, but suggested a lit cigarette as a possible cause.

"There were many people there who were smoking," national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto said earlier.

"It's a village, so many were scrambling to get oil and it was crowded." East Aceh is dotted with numerous small-scale oil drilling operations, which are often run illegally by local villagers.

There are reportedly tens of thousands of such wells across the Indonesian archipelago.

Abandoned oil wells are sometimes retapped while locals also drill into fresh sites to find new sources.

Deadly fires are not uncommon in Indonesia, a sprawling country of more than 260 million people where safety regulations are often flouted.

In October, 47 people died after a blaze tore through a fireworks factory outside Jakarta.