Hundreds of vandals trying to siphon gasoline from a pipeline sparked an inferno that swept through several villages in southern Nigeria. At least 422 people were killed, many charred beyond recognition, newspapers said Monday.
Officials were not sure if a spark from a vandal's tools or a careless smoker was responsible for the blaze, which began Saturday and was still raging late Sunday. It was not clear if firefighters had extinguished it by Monday.Communication with the towns was very difficult because of the fire, poor roads and Nigeria's notoriously bad telephone system.
An official death toll was not available, but the Lagos-based Guardian newspaper said Monday its reporters had counted 400 bodies at the scene near the town of Jesse, 180 miles southeast of Lagos. At least 22 other people died in area hospitals, it said.
Other unconfirmed newspaper reports put the death toll at more than 500.
The Concord newspaper said holes were punched in the pipeline near a concrete well and up to 1,000 people were waiting to steal the fuel when the explosion occurred.
Witnesses said they heard a loud roar and saw oily flames spread quickly as the slicks expanded.
Among the dead were many of the vandals - including children - whose corpses were found still clutching plastic cups, funnels and cans to collect fuel.
The charred body of one woman was found with her dead baby still strapped to her back. Many other victims were farmers and villagers sleeping in their homes.
"I cannot believe what I have seen. Corpses, corpses," Emmanuel Akhihiero, an official with the government oil company, said in a telephone interview.
Military commander Walter Feghabo ordered a mass burial for those victims charred beyond recognition.
Feghabo said more than 120 firefighters still were trying late Sunday to contain the flames in Jesse and the nearby villages of Mossogar and Oghara.
The above-ground pipeline links an oil refinery in the southeastern city of Warri, 210 miles southeast of the commercial capital of Lagos, with the northern city of Kaduna, nearly 380 miles away.
Despite Nigeria's enormous oil wealth, years of government misrule and corruption have resulted in perpetual fuel shortages that have led to skyrocketing black-market prices.
In other parts of southeastern Nigeria, ethnic Ijaw youths have attacked Western oil installations in recent weeks. The weekend fire, though, was not believed to be related to those incidents.