Oil well fire in Aceh kills 18, injures 41

BANDA ACEH • Firefighters in Indonesia struggled yesterday to contain a blaze at an oil well in the north-western province of Aceh that killed at least 18 people and injured 41, the authorities said.

Flames towered over houses and trees as firefighters hosed down the area while villagers looked on, pictures posted on social media by Mr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency, showed.

"We are still collecting data on the number of victims because the fire has not been extinguished," the agency said.

The fire broke out early yesterday after a 250m-deep well overflowed and residents gathered to collect the oil, the agency said.

Dozens of people were taken to hospital in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, several hours away, the agency said, adding that state oil firm Pertamina was providing equipment to help fight the fire.

At least eight fire trucks had been deployed to douse the blaze. Several homes were destroyed.

The authorities said there could be more victims. "We're still unable to control the fire. We don't know if there are still victims because we cannot get any closer," said the local disaster mitigation agency's head Syahrizal Fauzi.

The head of police in the area said the oil well might have been drilled illegally and the fire might have been started when someone was smoking a cigarette.

"We suspect this is a well drilled by the community... and we suspect there was someone smoking in the area at the time,"said police official Wahyu Kuncoro.

Such illegal drilling is common in Aceh, where Pertamina operates an oil field. East Aceh is dotted with numerous small-scale oil mining operations, which are often run illegally by villagers.

There are reportedly tens of thousands of such wells across the South-east Asian archipelago.

Abandoned oil wells are sometimes re-tapped even as locals drill into fresh sites to find new sources.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'Oil well fire in Aceh kills 18, injures 41'. Print Edition | Subscribe