Durban – While people from Durban North to Pinetown heard Friday’s explosion at Engen Refinery and motorists passing the Pavilion saw its flames and plumes of smoke, folk close to the plant thought they may have been struck by lightning.
The 7am blast gave South Durban residents a day to remember, although industrial gases, smells and noises, often affecting their health, are commonplace.
They are fed-up but try to manage in the circumstances, with actions like that of Quinton Wilkinson rescuing an “aunty” and her grandchild from a smoke-filled Austerville flat.
“She couldn’t even recognise me when I entered,” he said, explaining that she was one of the women who had brought him up.
“She was hysterical,” the 29-year-old man said. “There was a young girl, too, with burns on her face.”
Using his jacket to protect himself from smoke, Wilkinson and others dragged the grandmother and granddaughter out of the top-floor flat before they were rushed to hospital.
“I heard the aunty scream, just as I was standing by the tuck shop,” he said, referring to a refreshment outlet in the low-income block of flats surrounded by overgrown grass around 100m from the refinery.
One of Wilkinson’s neighbours described the explosion as a bang that came with hot air. Wilkinson noticed his neighbour’s door rattling.
“I thought someone was fighting in the house,” he recalled.
The pressure from the blast shattered windows in the surrounding housing, but also appeared to send some sort of missile that struck the grandmother’s roof.
Commuters told of how their taxi driver told them they must have been struck by lightning.
Engen’s firefighters fought the massive blaze, with the city’s services assisting.
“They had it out in one-and-a-half to two hours,” said eThekwini Fire Department divisional commander Trevor Stevens.
Seven people were injured but all were in a stable condition, said Garrith Jamieson of Rescue Care who were at the scene.
Metro police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Parboo Sewpersad said roads were immediately closed off and a forward control point established, which sees all information sent to one person who takes charge of the situation.
“ An evacuation was considered, but once the fire was extinguished, the plan fell flat.”
As members of the community stood around the Wiest Road block of flats, environmental activists met with a Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) delegation at a nearby hall.
Although the agenda of the long-awaited meeting centred on gas and oil exploration offshore, the morning explosion was on people’s minds.
“With regard to the explosion, where do you stand?” asked Sherelee Odayar of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA).
“There is so much uncertainty in the community. I am receiving messages here about people taking their kids to hospital, about them throwing up.”
A representative explained that different arms of government dealt with different issues.
SDCEA co-ordinator Desmond D’Sa, who has been calling for the city to have a concrete evacuation plan in place, said there was still “no readiness” in place yesterday morning.
“Engen must be shut down,” he said.
Local councillor Aubrey Snyman, of the Democratic Alliance, echoed his sentiments.
“The community of Wentworth, Merebank, Austerville and Bluff would like this refinery to close as the residents living in close proximity to it have experienced many fires and explosions,” he said.
“They would like it shut down as it has passed its sell-by date and it is poorly maintained.”
Participants of the community meeting with Pasa stressed that the issue of climate change should be dealt with urgently and that there was little time left to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy resources.
The IFP called on the government to ensure that all laws and regulations meant to regulate such industries and protect communities were implemented.
“Business, too, must carry the blame for showing no urgency in ensuring that they adhere to required safety measures to protect both workers and adjacent communities,” said Joshua Mazibuko, its spokesperson on conservation and environment.
The party asked whether the government and business would only take action once a whole community was wiped out, either by an explosion or by inhaling dangerous fumes.
“Firstly, the IFP deplores the actions of the apartheid government, which saw nothing wrong with placing communities in close proximity to such a dangerous industry. That was insensitivity of the worst order,” said Mazibuko.
“Secondly, we are dismayed that 26 years into our democratic dispensation, these communities are still sitting ducks for such catastrophes; and they complain about the dangers they face almost daily.”
In a written statement, Engen said it regretted the fire that started at 7.10am.
“Engen’s emergency response team and eThekwini emergency services were immediately mobilised to contain the incident. The fire was successfully extinguished at 8.45am and the cause of the fire is currently under investigation.
“All relevant authorities have been informed and full co-operation has been provided.”
Engen said it would provide an update about the incident as soon as further information was available.
Meanwhile, for rescuer Wilkinson, the explosion happened on yet another day in which he has been out of work since 2011, when he was temporarily employed at Engen.
“They should give people from the community work, but it’s only people from outside areas that are getting jobs there,” he said.
Independent on Saturday