16 are still missing after a fire at an oil depot in Indonesia left 15 dead

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

The Plumpang fuel storage station, operated by the state oil and gas company Pertamina, is located near a densely populated area in the Tanah Merah neighborhood in North Jakarta. It supplies 25% of Indonesia’s fuel needs.

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

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

A preliminary investigation showed the fire started when a pipeline broke during heavy rain, possibly due to a lightning strike, said Eko Kristiawan, Pertamina’s regional manager for the western part of Java.

Residents living near the depot said they smelled a strong smell of petrol, causing some to vomit, after which there was two rumbles followed by a huge explosion at around 8pm.

Sri Hariati, a mother of three, said the fire started spreading through their neighborhood about 20 minutes later, sending residents into a sudden panic.

“I was crying and immediately grabbed our precious documents and ran with my husband and children,” Hariati said.

He said he heard smaller explosions echoing throughout the residential neighborhood as orange flames shot from the warehouse and plumes of black smoke billowed out.

Data from the Indonesian Red Cross command center said the death toll was revised to 15 from 17 after authorities found some victims were counted twice. Rescuers continued to search for 16 people who were reported missing or separated from their families amid the chaos. About 49 people were being treated in five hospitals, some of them in critical condition.

Jakarta’s acting governor, Heru Budi Hartono, said about 600 evacuees had been moved to temporary shelters in government offices, a Red Cross headquarters and a sports stadium.

Pertamina chairman, director Nicke Widyawati apologized for the incident and said the company would provide assistance to the affected communities.

He said the company is working closely with relevant agencies and law enforcement to investigate the cause of the depot fire.

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

The company will use fuel supplies from a number of Pertamina fuel terminals on the island of Java and support the Cilacap and Balongan refineries, which are piped by sea to the Tanjung Priok terminal in North Jakarta.

As investigators tried to piece together what happened, distraught relatives went to the mortuary 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 identify … they could only be identified through DNA and dental data,” said Trunojudo Wisnu Antiko, a Jakarta police spokesman.

Friday’s fire was the second major fire at the Plumpang fuel depot. In 2014, a fire tore through 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 immediately move the warehouse away from nearby community settlements.

“Pertamina was negligent because it did not use international standard safety systems,” he said in an interview with Kompas TV. He said since the 2014 fire there had been no attempt to put such a system in place and that regular checks should be done to prevent future fires.

“Pertamina’s board should be held responsible for this deadliest fire by immediate dismissal,” Radhi said.

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

In March 2021, a fire at Cilacap gasoline storage facilities in the largest oil refinery on the main island of Java caused the evacuation of 80 nearby residents and injured at least 20 people. Cilacap is one of six Pertamina refineries with a capacity to process 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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