Banda Aceh (Indonesia) (AFP) – The death toll from a blaze at an illegal Indonesian oil well on Wednesday has jumped to 18 with dozens injured, authorities said, warning there could be yet more victims.
Images from the accident showed a towering flame shooting some 70 metres (230 feet) above homes and palm trees dotting a small community in Sumatra island’s Aceh province.
Firefighters on Wednesday afternoon were still battling the blaze sparked by an oil spill at about 1:30 am in a residential area. Several homes were destroyed.
“We’re still unable to control the fire,” said Syahrizal Fauzi, head of the local disaster mitigation agency.
“We don’t know if there are still victims because we cannot get any closer.”
Authorities initially said at least 10 people died and some 40 “severely injured” victims were being treated.
The jump in the death toll was due to the subsequent deaths of eight victims who had been rushed to hospital, authorities said.
“There was a group of people digging in the old well but suddenly a huge fire was sparked and it exploded,” said national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto.
The victims were collecting oil from around the entrance of a well bore when the blaze erupted, police said.
It was not known how much oil was spilled or what ignited the fire, but authorities suggested a lit cigarette as a possible cause.
“There were many people there who were smoking,” Wasisto said.
“It’s a village, so many were scrambling to get oil and it was crowded.”
East Aceh is dotted with numerous small-scale oil drilling operations, which are often run illegally by local villagers.
There are reportedly tens of thousands of such wells across the Indonesian archipelago.
Abandoned oil wells are sometimes re-tapped while locals also drill into fresh sites to find new sources.
Deadly fires are not uncommon in Indonesia, a sprawling country of more than 260 million people where safety regulations are often flouted.
In October 47 people died after a blaze tore through a fireworks factory outside Jakarta.
Workplace safety is often lacking in Indonesia and there are also concerns about lax building standards.
This year Jakarta temporarily halted all elevated transportation projects after a dozen major accidents killed five and wounded dozens more.
That directive followed a balcony collapse at the Jakarta Stock Exchange building which injured dozens.