Rescuers continued to search for up to a dozen missing people at the Sidoarjo mudflow disaster Thursday, a day after a gas pipeline exploded, killing at least seven people and shooting flames hundreds of meters into the air.
The powerful blast occurred at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday after an embankment built to contain the hot mud burst, sweeping four cars away and closing the main Porong toll road. Between four and 12 people are believed to be still missing.
“We have used helicopters, excavating machines and rubber boats — but we have not found the missing victims,” said Mohammad, the chief of the search and rescue team.
The search was hindered by the hot mud and the risk of toxic gas after the explosion. The temperature of the mud was so high it could melt rubber shoes, Mohammad said.
The seven people killed included two policeman, two soldiers and a local military commander. The dead were identified as Capt. Afandi, commander of the Balongbendo military district in Sidoarjo; Chief Pvt. Slamet; First Pvt. Fani; Second Sgt. Nafis of Kepanjen military command; Tri Iswandi and Yusman Ediyanto of state road management company PT Jasa Marga; and Edi Sutarno, a worker for a local contracting company.
Sidoarjo traffic police head Adj. Comr. Andi Yudianto said the death toll would likely rise because many people were working at the site when the explosion occurred.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said the government “would take steps to ensure that the situation at the disaster area would not deteriorate further”.
Edi Sunardi, from the Indonesian Association of Geologists, told AFP experts had warned about continuing to operate the gas pipeline in a disaster area.
Operated by Pertamina, the line channels gas from northeast East Java to a chemicals plant and to state gas and electricity firms.
The mudflow caused land subsidence, which put pressure on the 70 cm gas pipe, Sunardi said
“It (the subsidence) exerts pressure on the pipe and at one point, when the pressure is too much to bear, the pipe will break, the high-pressure gas will leak out and explode on contact with air.
“We have already warned about the potential of such incidents, since quite early after the ‘mud volcano’ developed. But it seems the warning has fallen on deaf ears,” Sunardi said.
The land around the gas well has sunk up to five meters so far, officials said.
Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, who heads the mudflow disaster team, said the team planned to strengthen the destroyed embankment, relocate the toll road, railway tracks and the pipeline, and build another spillway to anticipate the rising mudflow during the rainy season.
Purnomo said the explosion was caused by subsidence. “(The mud) broke the transmission pipe which then made the pressure rise to 400 psi (pounds per square inch) and the gas automatically shut down while the remaining gas ignited,” Purnomo said.
However, Purnomo dismissed risks of another blast.
Trijono, general manager of the East Java office of state-owned gas company PT Perusahaan Gas Negara, said that the explosion had caused the company to suffer losses of about Rp 10 billion (US$1.05 million) a day.
The company was forced to stop gas supplies to between 30 and 40 companies, including food seasoning company PT Ajinomoto, cement company PT Semen Gresik and state electricity company PT PLN, he said.
Meanwhile, Zulfikar celebrated his first birthday Thursday at the Dr. Soetomo Hospital in Surabaya, where his father is being treated for the severe injuries he sustained in the explosion.
Andri suffered burns to nearly 80 percent of his body after being thrown into the hot mud.