Lightning sparks huge blaze

2007-11-20 00:00

Nathan Nichols, who lives across the road from the refinery, said he was watching television when he heard a bang. He did not react immediately, but when he looked outside he said it was “like daylight”. He was one of the first to contact the fire department.

Speaking late last night, Netcare 911 spokesman Chris Botha said even though the fire was “burning unbelievably”, it was contained and there did not seem to be any immediate danger to residents. It was unlikely that an evacuation would be necessary. There were no injuries.

Engen spokesman Herb Payne confirmed that there was a strong chance that lightning ignited a petrol tank inside the oil refinery. Although the cause of the fire cannot be proven until it is out and a full investigation completed, this is the “most likely as it started in the middle of a violent electric storm”.

Payne said that by 10 pm, the fire was contained within the tank and there was no reason to expect it to spread into the rest of the refinery. “We have taken precautions to prevent that,” he said.

Desmond D'Sa, spokesman for the South Durban Environmental Alliance, who was on the scene within minutes, said many residents couldn't sleep last night. Some had already left the area. In addition to the danger from the fire itself, he said weather conditions were pushing the toxic smoke towards the residential area and many would suffer severe breathing problems. He said this latest fire highlights the very real danger facing residents in the area.

Residents huddled in the streets in the pouring rain to watch the fire and discuss the probability of a mass evacuation. Most said they had heard nothing other than three sirens at the refinery to denote a warning. They said five signal danger, seven call for an evacuation and nine signal extreme danger.

Most said they are not aware of an evacuation plan.

Payne said that the fire was being sprayed with foam and water to bring it under control.

In a statement issued late last night, he said the fire was being fanned by a south-easterly breeze, which resulted in a plume of black smoke spreading north-west. He advised residents to stay indoors and asked them to stay away from the refinery gates to avoid hampering access to emergency services should they be required.

However, residents who had parked their cars along almost every road surrounding the refinery were not convinced. “By the time they decide they need to evacuate the area, it will be too late. The IVS fire [at the nearby storage depot on September 18] should have been a warning,” said Charmaine Pillay, who stood overlooking the refinery with her daughters.

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