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Smoke is seen billowing from the NP compound at Sea Lots, Port-of-Spain, after a storage tanker exploded.

Kalain Hosein

Thick, black smoke billowed high into the skies across Port-of-Spain yesterday, as thousands of gallons of fuel burnt indiscriminately following an explosion at National Petroleum’s Sea Lots compound.

Three people, said to be contractors performing maintenance work on the compound at the time, were injured in the blast and were quickly whisked away from the scene for emergency medical care.

One contractor sustained burns to the forearm and thighs, while another experienced intense heat to the head but escaped burns. The third contractor was found several moments after his colleagues, reportedly traumatised from the event. All the men were taken to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital for treatment.

According to NP, the explosion took place at approximately 12.45 pm on the southern side of the Tank Farm area of its compound.

Shockwaves from the explosion sent nearby employees scampering for safety.

Police and fire officials were quick to respond.

Later on, employees were seen running across the Beetham Highway under police watch before assembling in a muster point area just east of the Port-of-Spain Market. Still adhering to COVID-19 protocols, all were masked and most socially distanced. However, they were all recounting their experiences over their phones. Most said they felt the building shake, then heard the loud explosion.

Smoke from the site was seen billowing into the sky from miles away. Many people took videos and posted them on social media. Some people closer to the action even stopped on the nearby Port-of-Spain overpass and other areas and took images and video.

Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith also visited the site and oversaw police and emergency operations. The Commissioner ordered the Beetham Highway closed just after the explosion. Eastbound traffic was diverted to the Priority Bus Route through Abattoir Road, Sea Lots, while westbound traffic was diverted from the Maritime Flyover to the Priority Bus Route. Griffith explained that this was done to ensure the public and motorists’ safety while fire officials were extinguishing the blaze.

With the westbound lanes closed, emergency officials were able to respond to the fire quickly. Fire tenders from the Wrightson Road Fire Station were able to respond to the fire within eight minutes. Within an hour, acting Chief Fire Officer Marlon Smith confirmed that the fire had been extinguished. Shortly before 2 pm, NP employees were allowed to return to their offices, albeit a bit shellshocked. A heavy police presence remained on-site into the late afternoon.

In a statement afterward, NP confirmed the explosion occurred while contractors were conducting a repair exercise. (See full statement below)

Also commenting on the incident, Energy Minister Franklin Khan said, “Tank four, which stores around 10,000 barrels of super gasoline, was being pumped out. That process had virtually finished, so the tank was largely empty, but somehow it ignited.”

What caused the fire?

While investigations are still ongoing, NP confirmed that the explosion occurred while a contractor was on site. Following is the statement the company sent on the incident:

NP can confirm that at approximately 12.54 pm today, Friday 11th December 2020, an explosion occurred on the southern side of the Tank Farm area of NP’s Sea Lots, Port-of-Spain, Head Office.

At this time, we can confirm that an explosion took place while a contractor was on site extracting residual product from a storage tank as part of a routine repair exercise at the NP, PoS facility. We can confirm that there are no casualties at this time and that two persons who were affected by the explosion, have been taken to the hospital to receive emergency care.

In keeping with established HSSE procedural guidelines, the Trinidad and Tobago Fire Services were immediately contacted and fire tenders from the Wrightson Road, division were immediately dispatched to the scene. With a comprehensive response from the T&T Fire Services and the T&T Police Service, NP can provide assurance that the situation is fully under control as the fire is now contained.

NP employs a robust maintenance system, and we are working to determine the cause of the incident as we remain in contact with authorities at the scene. The safety of our employees and the communities in which NP operates remains the Company’s top priority at this point and we will be providing further updates as they become available.

NP wishes to assure the public that our operations remain unaffected and that we continue to supply the country with a continuous and reliable supply of fuel.