Indonesia fuel depot fire kills 18, over dozen missing

Hundreds of people ran in panic as thick plumes of black smoke and orange flames filled the sky.
A pet macaque stands on its owner's motorbike as people inspect the damages from a fuel depot fire in Indonesia.
Posted at 8:37 AM, Mar 04, 2023

Indonesian rescuers and firefighters on Saturday searched for more than a dozen missing under the rubble of charred houses and buildings, after a large fire spread from a fuel storage depot in the capital and killed at least 18 people.

The Plumpang fuel storage station, operated by state-run oil and gas company Pertamina, is 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 extinguished the blaze just before midnight on Friday after it tore through the neighborhood for more than two hours, fire officials said.

Footage showed hundreds of people running in panic as thick plumes of black smoke and orange flames filled the sky.

A preliminary investigation showed the fire broke out when a pipeline ruptured during heavy rain, possibly triggered by a lightning strike, said Eko Kristiawan, Pertamina's area manager for the western part of Java.

Residents living near the depot said they smelled a strong odor of gasoline, causing some people to vomit, after which thunder rumbled twice, followed by a huge explosion around 8 p.m.

Sri Haryati, a mother of three, said the fire began to spread about 20 minutes later, causing panic.

"I was crying and immediately grabbed our valuable documents and ran with my husband and children," Haryati said, adding that she heard smaller blasts that echoed across the neighborhood as orange flames jumped from the depot.

Rescuers were searching for 16 people who were reported missing or separated from their families amid the chaos. About 42 people were receiving treatment in five hospitals, some of them in critical condition.

National Police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said more than 1,300 people were displaced and taking shelter in 10 government offices, a Red Cross command post and a sport stadium.

He said investigators were still working to establish the cause of the fire and questioning dozens of witnesses.

Pertamina's head Nicke Widyawati apologized and said the company would provide help to the community and cooperate in the investigation.

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

On Saturday, grieving relatives gathered at a police hospital's morgue in eastern Jakarta to try to identify their loved ones. Officials said the victims were burned beyond recognition and could only be identified through DNA and dental records.

In 2014, a fire at the same fuel depot engulfed at least 40 houses, but no casualties were reported.

Indonesia's State Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir told reporters that the government will remap safe zones for residential areas away from vital objects.

He said the incident showed the Plumpang area is not safe for the community, and the government is planning to move the fuel storage depot to Tanjung Priok port in northern Jakarta.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.