Eid is always a joyous time for any Muslim country, with three days of festivities and celebrations after a month of fasting. But for Pakistan, this Eid was marred by an enormous tragedy of a truly horrific nature. On June 25, the last day of Ramadan, an oil tanker on a highway near the city of Bahawalpur (southern Punjab) flipped over and crashed. 10,000 gallons of oil spilled out, forming large puddles. The scene of the accident quickly drew in a large crowd that tried to collect the oil. Several motorists stopped and as news of the accident spread, villagers from all around the area converged with buckets and cans to collect free oil. About an hour after the crash, the oil tanker went up in an enormous explosion which destroyed everything around it and set all the oil, and many of the people, on fire. Dozens died on the spot. Scores were wounded and taken to hospitals and the death toll rose over time. By the end of the day, the death toll was put at 150. The number of dead is now 219. 140 are injured, many critically.
The Bahawalpur oil tanker explosion is one of the worst accidents in Pakistan’s history, one of the worst road accidents in the world, and a major disaster in Pakistan. It is a testament to the various deficits in how the country is run. It is an example of the country’s poor road safety, inept authorities, inefficient emergency services, low public safety awareness, inadequate medical services, desperate poverty, and generally poor emergency management.
It is also an example of how poorly information from remote areas is processed in Pakistan, Details of the event have been muddled. Weeks after, there is no certainty regarding what happened. What we know is that a tank truck was driving from Karachi to Lahore on National Highway 5. It crashed in a rural area called Ramzanpur Joya, near the city of Bahawalpur. The truck was later revealed to be contracted for Shell Pakistan Limited.
Initially, it was reported that while turning a sharp bend on the highway, the truck burst one of its tires and the driver lost control, causing the vehicle to overturn. It was later revealed that a bus came in front of the truck and then suddenly braked, so the truck driver turned to the right to avoid hitting the bus, whereupon it overturned, blocked the road and caused a traffic jam. Many people in cars and on motorbikes, however, seemed content with stopping to collect the spilled oil. Many people who were working in plantations nearby learned of the accident and also rushed to the site to collect oil. As news spread, the crowd kept swelling and more and more men, women, and children gathered at the oil spill. People called their relatives on the cell phone to join in, and reportedly, a loudspeaker at a nearby mosque was used to inform people of the oil spill so they could come and collect it. The authorities, however, say that this is unconfirmed.
Local media arrived at the scene and videos were made of the oil spill. The police say that they also arrived at the scene and warned the crowd to get away from the oil, but they were ignored. According to witnesses, the driver of the crashed truck also told the crowd the same thing. He is quoted as saying, “What is the use of this petrol? What will you do with it now?” while carrying a bucket.
Videos taken of the crash scene, however, do not show any police.
45 minutes after the crash, the oil burst into flames. It is not known how the oil was ignited. The most likely explanation is that somebody lit a cigarette and threw the butt on the ground near the tanker. Other theories suggest it was a spark from one of the vehicles or the batteries of one of the cell phones people were using.
The tanker exploded, immediately incinerating the people around it. The fire rapidly spread through the oil slicks with hundreds trapped in it. Yet more people rushed to the site, this time with containers filled with water, and tried to extinguish the fire. Reportedly, the same mosque which told people of the crash now announced news of the fire and implored people to put it out. Then the fire brigade and Rescue 1122 arrived on the scene. They rescued people from the fire and put them in ambulances. After two hours of fighting the blaze, the firefighters managed to put it out.
There were no medical centers that were nearby. 90 of the victims were taken to two hospitals in Bahawalpur, the district hospital and Victoria Hospital. But these two hospitals had no burn centers, so 51 of the most seriously wounded were then airlifted to a hospital in Multan, dozens of miles to the north. Many of those injured suffered severe burns. Most of the people who died were unrecognizable. Many were burned down to the skeleton. Even though the driver suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, the police say they arrested him for their investigation. The driver made a statement and later died in hospital. A week later, the death toll rose to 200. At the time of writing, it stands at 250, while 140 are injured. Twenty of the dead are children.
The disaster is horrifying in terms of how so many died so quickly. Not to mention the severity of injuries amongst the survivors. Being burnt is one of the worst injuries people can sustain. Severe burns can lead to lasting disfigurement and disability. That is how several of the victims are going to end up, bearing the scars of the terrible event. All could have easily avoided ending up like this. The Bahawalpur oil tanker fire is a disaster that is senseless and gruesome to an extreme degree.
The nation’s sense of horror is somewhat deadened by frequent tragedies of the kind. In fact, the day before the tanker accident, there were two bomb blasts in Parachinar, FATA, which killed more than a hundred people and injured hundreds, as well as a suicide bombing in Quetta which killed 13.
Nonetheless, the oil tanker tragedy received far more attention than the Parachinar bombing tragedy. Bhawalpur overshadowed Parachinar in the news as the Prime Minister shortened his visit to the UK to visit the tanker victims. Was it because mass deaths caused by terrorist attacks are much more common in Pakistan than mass deaths caused by transportation and industrial accidents? Or because FATA is a much more marginal and inaccessible area than southern Punjab?
Incidents like the Bahawalpur tanker disaster, in which crowds collected around oil spills and suffered from ignition of the oil, have happened several times before in Pakistan, including one time when oil spilled from a tanker truck near Jhang in 1999 and 65 people died. No lessons have been learnt from that incident, as no policy change was made neither were people made more aware of the danger. We must not let it be the same with Bhawalpur oil tanker spill tragedy.
Already, another oil tanker accident has taken place in Vehari, People ran towards oil despite the Bahawalpur oil tanker tragedy being recent news. Pakistan is badly in need of learning the lessons from Bahawalpur.
Pakistan has an appalling record in road safety. The nation’s roads, particularly the highways, are hazardous because of the poor design of roads, poorly maintained vehicles, and reckless driving. The kind of vehicles that pose the greatest danger, those that can cause great disasters that threaten large numbers of people, are trucks loaded with hazardous materials, particularly tanker trucks.
Tanker trucks carry liquid materials. They usually consist of a large cylinder-shaped container on wheels. As the container is always wider than the wheels, tanker trucks have a high center of gravity and are therefore difficult and dangerous to drive. They can easily tip over. A violent crash can puncture the walls of the container and the contents can leak out. Therefore, tanker trucks that carry dangerous materials, of which the most common is oil, always need great safety precautions in their design and their operation. Pakistan has a number of laws dealing with this matter, but they tend to be archaic. Laws in Pakistan are not updated and often lag behind social progress.
The official inquiry on Bhawalpur found that the oil tanker did not follow proper safety guidelines. The truck, which carried 50,000 litres of fuel, had only four axles while an oil tanker needs at least 5 axles to carry that much weight. It also turned out that the fitness certificate of the truck was fake. It is quite appalling that such low standards were followed for something so hazardous. There obviously are other tanker trucks in the nation which are the same and Pakistan must now seek out all trucks which do not follow safety standards and get rid of them. Pakistan must improve both its laws and its enforcement of them.
The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (OGRA) held Shell Pakistan Limited responsible for the accident, and ordered it to pay one million rupees to the family of each person killed and half a million rupees to each injured. Shell also had to pay a fine of 10 million rupees.
Though the tragedy was entirely avoidable, the owners of the oil tanker cannot be held solely responsible for it. Spills from oil tanker crashes tend not to pose a great danger because they tend to cover a small area and people usually get away from the oil. But in the case of Bahawalpur, (and many oil tanker crashes in Third World countries), people exposed themselves to extreme hazard by flocking to the site for oil. This part needs an explanation.
People rush to collect the oil because petroleum is very valuable. They intend either to sell the oil or use it for lighting fires. The people of the area where the crash took place are poor and suffer frequent power outages and energy shortages. It is difficult for them to obtain adequate fuel to light fires with. Getting their hands on free petroleum, which they could sell or light fires with, was a huge boon for them. They jumped at the opportunity that placed itself in their midst as a crashed truck leaking oil. The Bahawalpur oil tanker disaster is thus a prime example of how poorly the country is providing for its people. Southern Punjab is not the poorest part of Pakistan yet the rural villagers there say that the government focuses on development for the urban areas and for the elite, not for the common masses. The tragedy is a stark wake-up call for Pakistan to change its development priorities.
It is understood why the victims wanted the oil, but what needs to be understood is why they placed themselves in so much danger and why they could not take measures to make themselves safer while being thus exposed. That the victims had no or very little education is obvious. Education is chronically lacking in Pakistan, with the literacy rate at 58 percent for the entire nation. Yet, you don’t need literacy or education to know that petroleum is flammable and that you will get burnt if you are surrounded by burning oil. Some of the victims of the fire, the motorists and the truck driver, should have been less ignorant of the matter. Yet, they did not keep their distance.
It is a glaring display of the tendency to put material pursuit before personal safety. It seems people were not aware of how easy it was for the oil to ignite. But if it is true that somebody was smoking a cigarette in the vicinity and threw the burning butt onto the oil, it is carelessness that defies belief. What also defies belief is that the driver stood close to the oil all along. He, a trained professional, should have known better.
The ignorance of the masses is also revealed by how they responded after the oil caught fire. Witnesses say that they brought buckets of water to fight the fire. It is both useless and dangerous fighting oil fires with water. Oil does not mix with water and is lighter than water. Thus, it floats to the top of water and continues burning. The urgent goal for them was not to put the fire out but to rescue the people caught in fire. Pouring water on them not only will not work but could spread the burning oil further on the person and around. The way to save a person covered in burning oil is to cover them with a sheet so that the oil is starved of oxygen. If material used to cover them is porous, then it should be made wet first as oil cannot penetrate a wet cloth.
As Pakistan develops, it will tackle desperate poverty. However, improving the lot of the poor is a long-term goal. What needs to be done more urgently is to make the common masses more safety-conscious.
The police had the duty of keeping people safe. If people ignored police’s call to stay away, the latter should have used force to keep people away. This would have been easier if they cordoned off the area before the crowd assembled. But the police did not do so because they arrived too late. It is very common for the police in Pakistan to take a long time responding to an emergency.
What should be done in events like these is for the driver to call the police immediately and for the nearest police officers to arrive. A significant police presence all along highways is important so that police can quickly reach scenes of accidents. But when people are in need of being rescued, the police alone are not adequate. Ambulances, fire trucks, and other rescue vehicles need to be able to reach any accident scene with lightning speed.
The big problem in the case of the Bahawalpur tragedy is the huge numbers of people affected, which requires emergency crews to arrive in significant numbers. They would have to come from a major hospital and fire station. Highways are very long stretches and one cannot have a big emergency station located along every ten miles or so. Emergency services are concentrated in populated localities, whereas a highway mostly runs through areas little population. But highways are also hazardous places. Significant safety coverage is badly needed.
There should be firefighting, rescue, and medical facilities specifically for the highways, just as the highways have their own police units. There must be emergency vehicles on hand which can reach any part of the highway in a short period of time and there should be small firefighting and medical stations spread along the highway. Such hospitals would have been of immense value to the Bhawalpur burn victims.
After suffering severe burns, the victims of the oil tanker fire then suffered from severe lack of medical facilities. There were some hospitals nearby to go to, but they had no burn centers, so the injured had to be shifted further away to Multan and Lahore. The number of injured turned out to be difficult for medical facilities to accommodate.
People who suffer severe burns are in vital need of extensive hospitalization. They often need a very long time to recover, during which time they need to remain in medical care. Medical institutions typically have a particular facility for burn victims known as a burn center. Burn centers need great care in having sanitation because burn victims are highly prone to infection.
Healthcare services in Pakistan are in an extremely poor state. The number of hospitals is inadequate and healthcare workers are in short supply. The government spends only 2.6 percent of its money on healthcare and medical services are usually freely available only to the rich bureaucrats. Hospital beds, which are particularly important for burn victims, number only 0.6 for every 1,000 Pakistanis. Given how common terrorism is in Pakistan, one would expect the nation’s hospitals to be adapted to treating large numbers of wounded.
So, Pakistan badly needs change in many ways. But what we need to do is go over what should have been done during Bahawalpur emergency on June 25. Firefighters arrived immediately after the blaze started. But that was one of the biggest mistakes. They should have sped towards the scene as soon as the oil tanker had the accident. It is not enough to respond once a calamity starts. Preventive action must also be taken. Hence, as soon as the driver got out of the truck, he should have called police. The police should have notified the fire department and both should have arrived in case a blaze started.
Officers that arrived on the scene should assume that people might be attracted to free oil and taken preventative action to prevent the crowd from forming. If they could not, saving the crowd from the threat of an oil fire should have been left to the fire department. A fire truck could be able to disperse the crowd by driving towards them or by spraying them with water, but there is a better course of action. When the fire tenders are called to the scene, this is what they should have done. They should have taken out their hoses and used it to spray foam, or whatever else they use to fight oil fires, onto the oil, specifically around the people collecting the oil. Oil fire inhibitors not only extinguish oil fires but prevent them from starting or spreading in the first place. The oil collectors could be annoyed at this action and could leave.
We cannot change what happened. But we can change what could happen in the future. As another such calamity could happen any moment, and indeed nearly did so in Vehari, we need to start now. All emergency services across Pakistan must be instructed in what to do if an oil tanker crashes and oil spills. There must also be a review done of the entire oil tanker service in Pakistan. All tanker trucks must be examined to ensure safety compliance.
Finally, we need to make everybody in Pakistan aware that they should not do what the Bahawalpur victims did. As the disaster is a recent event and the treatment of the wounded is an ongoing event, we have the opportunity to raise awareness. One aspect of poverty and ignorance is that people are unaware of events as they happen. They are too busy with livelihood to keep up with the news or are deprived of means of news. But we must find a way to make sure every Pakistani knows of what happened at Bahawalpur and what should have happened to prevent the disaster. Reporting news of calamities should simultaneously be the means of educating people in safety measures.
The struggle for the survivors of Bahawalpur is just beginning. Scores of people are still badly wounded and in hospital, and while the death toll right now has stopped rising, the victims might in the coming days contract infection. Action at this stage can improve their care. We should shift the victims to burn centers all across Pakistan. Donations too can help. How much people can donate to a relief operation is dependent on what sort of image the disaster gives. This is where media sets in. Humanitarian organizations should appeal for help and rouse the world with coverage of the disaster.
The hundred injured victims have a long and arduous recovery ahead of them. Most of them will be affected for life and must be supported.
Every aspect of the disaster calls for change in Pakistan. Better measures to prevent oil spills and oil truck crashes are needed. Better Emergency services to do their best at rescuing and treating people affected by oil fires are needed. But one of the things that we most need to change is what is the easiest to change, the danger of crowds being drawn towards oil spills. The Bahawalpur calamity is the very epitome of an avoidable disaster. Everybody who fell victim did so because they placed themselves in danger. Had people stayed away, the oil likely would not even have ignited and would be safely cleanend up.
There is much that Pakistan needs in the way of emergency services and the management of hazards and disasters. But what is needed in Pakistan most of all is that its people are made capable of ensuring their own safety.