JESSE TOWN, Nigeria -- Christiana Akpode was up to her knees in raw gasoline when the fire started Oct. 17, 1998. Like hundreds of other villagers, she was busily scooping the gasoline into containers for sale on the black market. Rivers of gas are unfortunately not uncommon in Nigeria.
The one that exploded Oct. 17 was formed after an above ground valve connection for an underground petroleum pipeline malfunctioned, spurting amber gasoline into the African sky. No one's sure if it was intentionally punctured by black
market thieves or if it simply broke. Though the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Shell Petroleum Development Corporation were notified of the dangerous leak, no repairs were made over the course of several weeks. The gas eventually formed a river that was "up to chest deep" in some locations, according to Alfred Dmamogho, the village's spokesman.
For weeks, the council of elders tried in vain to coax the locals out of the gasoline, but free gas is a rare find and an even more lucrative opportunity. Due to endemic governmental corruption and misguided subsidy policies, Nigeria is constantly in the grip of a gas crisis even though it's OPEC's sixth largest oil producer. Therefore, trying to keep impoverished villagers from the deadly torrent was like trying to keep mosquitoes at bay. More than 1,000 people were wading through the river of gasoline Oct. 17. No one knows for sure how the fire started. Either the heat of the day ignited the petroleum fumes or someone was very careless with a cigarette. Regardless, those in the river suddenly found themselves aflame from head to toe.
"Just like I pull someone to me in a quick hug, that's how fast the fire came," said Edward Akpodoner, who was standing on the bank of the gas river at the time. He was instantly consumed, his clothing aflame, his legs and buttocks on fire. He stripped off his clothes while running like mad, but he still suffered severe third degree burns from his waist down.
He was one of the very lucky ones. Most of those in the river at the time stayed there during the two weeks that it burned, their bodies reduced to bones and ash. Later, the villagers used wheelbarrows and shovels to bury them in a mass grave nearby, individual identification impossible. Even those people were lucky compared to Christiana. A mother of two, the 25-year-old was scooping up the gasoline to sell to feed and cloth her children, the youngest of whom, named ByGod, was only 3 months old at the
These days, she spends her days fending off swarms of flies that buzz
around her destroyed legs, trying to keep them from laying eggs in her open, infected wounds. She can barely walk since the burned limbs are entirely deformed into a permanent kneel. Like many of the fire's few survivors, she has never received medical treatment for her injuries. She suffers in pain daily, praying for either a cure or a quick death, cared for by her elderly mother, who also watches her children.
The fire decimated the village. Entire families were consumed and an entire generation of orphans formed. To date, no compensation, either from the government or the petroleum company, has been offered or received. And to date, no doctors, Nigerian or foreign, have visited the village
even though it's easily accessible by paved road.
If you are interested in helping Christiana Akpode and other burn survivors in Nigeria and throught the world, please contact us at: 936-647-2256; or send
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