A Sokimex tanker truck holding 8,000 liters of diesel caught fire in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district shortly after noon yesterday, sending up a column of black smoke that turned heads throughout the capital.
Eyewitnesses and firemen said the fire started as the truck filled storage tanks at a Max filling station in Veal Vong commune and that the driver tried to drive away in an attempt to prevent an explosion, traveling roughly 50 meters before fuel pouring from his truck began spewing flames across street 182.
“We suspect that the driver made an error which caused the truck to explode,” said First Deputy Phnom Penh Fire Chief So Vannara, adding that he thought the problem was likely with an electrical circuit.
According to Mr Vannara, even though six homes, four cars, five motorcycles and at least two furniture shops were destroyed in the ensuing blaze, the only person injured was a fireman knocked unconscious by a blast from a firehouse.
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth speculated yesterday that the initial spark may have been caused by a steel welder working at the filling station.
“We are still investigating,” said Mr Naruth.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered as 20 fire trucks arrived carrying crews from Phnom Penh International Airport and the Sokimex company as well as municipal and military firefighters who attempted to contain the blaze, which ignited electrical lines, cutting power to parts of the city. As fire engines sprayed water on the fire and the truck, residents of nearby buildings threw their belongings off balconies.
Furniture sellers carried what they could from their shops in attempt to keep bureaus, dressers and chairs from becoming kindling.
Most succeeded. Some failed.
Long Sami a 68-year-old furniture seller whose apartment was consumed in yesterday’s fire, said that after the diesel caught fire, she only had time to grab one sarong. She wore that last possession as she watched firefighters hose down the charred cavern that had been living room.
“I was woken by the sound of an explosion,” said Ms Sami. “I came downstairs and saw fire cover the front of my house. I was scared so I ran through the back door of the house.”
Ms Sami said she planned on filing a complaint against Sokimex demanding compensation for her lost belongings.
“Our company has insurance. So we will look into the how to pay homeowners for their lost houses,” said Sokimex Chairman Sok Kong.
Mr Kong said that the owner of the gasoline station where the truck caught fire had been detained for questioning.
According to Paul Hurford, director of Overseas Operation for Australian Firefighters International Relief and Education, an NGO devoted to developing fire services, after containing the blaze, firefighters planned to decant the 4,000 to 6,000 liters of diesel remaining in the fire-blackened tanker then removing the tanker from the site. The tanker was gone by yesterday evening.
“The reality is that they were very lucky the tanks did not rupture and the fuel just burned out,” said Mr Hurford, adding that he thought that by containing blazes like yesterday’s firefighters could improve the way they are perceived by the public.
Deputy district police chief Chea Sok said yesterday evening that police are still looking for the tanker’s driver.