Pandemonium broke out in Warri, the commercial hub of Delta State yesterday as the ailing Warri Refining and Petrochemical Company, WRPC, was engulfed by fire.
Huge ball of smoke billowed into the air as the refinery went up in flames. This development heightened fears about imminent scarcity of petroleum products, especially in the areas serviced by WRPC in the Southern and Northern parts of the country.
The fire outbreak led to an abrupt closure of the refining plant. It was learnt that fire erupted at the nation’s pioneer crude oil refining plant at about 9:45a.m., a development which forced oil workers and dealers at the neighbouring Warri Loading Depot operated by the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company, PPMC, a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, to scamper for safety.
The managements of WRPC and PPMC had to advice their employees to vacate the troubled scenes.
The jittery management of WRPC was apparently compelled by the prevailing circumstance to recall some safety personnel from vacation to avoid colossal threat to lives and property. Residents and oil workers within the vicinity of the plant were caught by fear of likelihood of an explosion resulting from the inferno. Panic-stricken residents dispatched distress messages to loved ones within and outside the city as fire ravaged the refining complex.
Specifically, oil workers in the Area Office of PPMC and Warri Depot also controlled by PPMC, led by Mr. William Enoh as well as the oil dealers attached to the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, IPMAN, and the major oil operators in the depot, scampered in different directions to avoid being affected by the danger.
Although the fire was eventually put out by a combined team of fire fighters attached to NNPC, the moribund Anglo-Dutch energy giant, Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, and Delta State Government, it has done collateral damage to some major units of the plant before the intervention.
Consequently, it was learnt that fire had damaged some multi-million dollars equipment in the plant before the arrival of the interventionist team of fire fighters. Security agents, especially the troops of the Joint Task Force, JTF, in the Niger Delta, later cordoned-off the refinery and depot and prevented visitors, including journalists, from accessing the facility.
Our correspondent reported that tension gripped residents of the city and its adjoining Effurun, the headquarters of Uvwie Local Government Area of the state, as information about the latest fate of WRPC filtered into the city.
Eyewitness account told our correspondent that the fire erupted from a unit popularly referred to as “Area 1” in the refining complex, which produces kerosene, diesel and other by-products of petroleum products, especially light and heavy Naphta and heavy gas oil.
Reliable sources in WRPC told our correspondent that trouble started when a leakage on the Vacuum Unit Pump which supplies heavy gas oil, a major feedstock for the Fluid Catalystic Cracking, FCC, unit failed in the course of operation.
One of the sources said: “The hot petroleum products from the three major units Reforming and Topping as well as FCC units ignited fire as soon as unit pump control failed.
“The three major units were abruptly brought down and by implication; the entire plant had also been shut down immediately. We can’t officially determine the cause of the fire immediately until the system is cool and dry.
“The Department of Inspection and Testing in WRPC is expected to carry out investigation about the cause of the fire in the next few days and brief the management on their findings and also make appropriate recommendations to the authorities on the way forward,” added the source, who craved anonymity.
It will be recalled that the plant resumed operations lately after prolonged closure due to major faults at some of its strategic units. The maintenance of the damaged facilities was reported to have gulped million of dollars.
The Managing Director of WRPC, Mr. Paul Obelley, could not be reached for reaction to the latest fate of the plant yesterday. But an official of public affairs department of the ailing plant, who confirmed the report in an interview with National Mirror, added that Obelley had ordered investigation into the incident.
WRPC, the first government- owned refinery, was inaugurated in 1978 to process 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day. However, it was redesigned in 1987 to process 125,000 barrels of crude oil per day