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Gas pipe leak turns hamlet into hell
- Attempt to light stove led to explosion: police

Hyderabad, June 27: Fifteen people were burnt alive after a leaking government gas pipeline turned a village into a tinderbox last night and an unsuspecting resident struck a match to light a stove early this morning, police said.

The resulting explosion sent a ball of fire racing through houses, shops, coconut groves and parked vehicles at Nagaram, 560km southeast of Hyderabad, around 5am.

Panicky men, women and children ran out of their homes but apart from the 15 dead, another 18 were severely injured, five suffering 90 per cent burns. The injured include five children aged between 19 months and 9 years.

The pipeline with an 18-inch diameter belongs to the state-owned Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and supplies gas from an ONGC gas field to private company Lanco’s power plant near Vijayawada, 200km away.

It runs through settlements in Nagaram, a coastal hamlet in East Godavari district that is home to about 300 people, mostly members of well-off farming families that own coconut plantations.

The fire destroyed some 30 to 40 houses. “In 15 minutes, everything was gutted,” said a local policeman.

Andhra Pradesh home minister N. Chinnarajappa, the first VIP to reach the site, said villagers had told him they had first smelt a gas leak three days ago and complained to GAIL officials, who carried out minor repairs.

But obviously, the repairs were not done properly, Chinnarajappa suggested to the media.

Police thwarted a mob attack on the local GAIL office. Both the Centre and the state government have ordered probes.

After the gas had wafted silently into village homes and shops, the fire was triggered with a “deafening” blast when a tea stall vendor or housewife tried to light a stove, local police officers suggested.

A GAIL official, however, quoted company chairperson B.C. Tripathi as saying the “exact cause of the blast” can be known only after an inquiry.

Some villagers alleged they had felt a foul smell last night but GAIL officials took no action. A police officer said this needed to be verified.

“The villagers are angry because they feel the GAIL authorities did not bother to act although a smell was coming from the rusted pipeline,” state finance minister Y. Ramakrishnudu said.

Probes

Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan has ordered an inquiry headed by a joint secretary in his ministry. The probe panel will have officials from the oil industry safety directorate, National Disaster Management Authority and Hindustan Petroleum but GAIL and ONGC have been kept out of it.

“The gas pipeline has been shut and the fire controlled,” Pradhan told reporters in Delhi.

“Right now, the focus is on relief, rehabilitation and rescue. I, along with petroleum secretary (Saurabh Chandra), GAIL chairman (Tripathi) and ONGC chairman (D.K. Sarraf) are leaving for the accident site.”

Chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu cut his Delhi trip short to visit Nagaram.

Pradhan said he would work towards giving statutory powers to the oil industry safety directorate, which is now “only a recommendatory body”.

The directorate, which functions under the petroleum ministry, carries out safety audits of oil and gas installations besides formulating and standardising procedures and guidelines for design, operation and maintenance.

In August 2012, then oil minister S. Jaipal Reddy had suggested giving statutory powers to the directorate but the proposal has not been carried out so far.

“When I came to this ministry, I was shocked to learn that there is no statutory authority for safety and security. This is a concern,” Pradhan said.

The fire is part of a series of accidents in the oil sector in the past few years. HPCL-Mittal Energy Ltd’s refinery in Bathinda (Punjab) witnessed a minor fire earlier this month but no one was injured.

Last August, a blaze at Hindustan Petroleum’s Vizag refinery killed 30 people. A dozen people died in a fire at Indian Oil Corp’s Jaipur oil depot on December 29, 2009.

In 2005, 24 lives were lost when a giant ONGC platform in Bombay High caught fire in a collision with a supply vessel.

Relief

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a Rs 2 lakh compensation for each death and Rs 50,000 for each injured and called for immediate relief.

President Pranab Mukherjee, Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have issued messages of condolence.

Chinnarajappa said 14 bodies had been found in the village and one of the injured died later. Those severely burnt are being treated at a private hospital in Kakinada and the rest at a general hospital in Amalapuram, the town nearest to Nagaram.

Stoppage of gas supply to the Lanco power plant caused a shortfall of about 300MW in the coastal region, leading to power cuts.