Christmas 'cancelled' in Nigerian town as gas blast kills nine

Lagos (AFP) - Christmas was "cancelled" in the southeastern Nigerian town where a huge explosion at an industrial gas plant killed nine people and left three critically injured.

On a hot Christmas Eve morning Thursday, residents in the blue-collar city of Nnewi were filling bottles with cooking gas to be used to prepare their holiday feasts when the plant went up in flames.

The plant was reduced to a heap of smouldering rubble and incinerated human corpses.

As police investigate what triggered the blast, residents increasingly suspect that safety regulations were flouted.

"People are very angry," said Ilochonwu Prince, who lives near the plant. "People are asking, were the necessary procedures followed?"

Christmas did not come to Nnewi this year, said Prince, a 26-year-old student.

"Everything is burnt, everything is black. Most of the Christmas arrangements -- carols, celebrations -- people have cancelled because of the tragedy.

"How can you enjoy yourself when you remember what happened?"

Instead, Nnewi residents plan a prayer session to commemorate the victims on Monday at the palace of the city's monarch, Igwe Orizu.

"We think many people will come," Prince said. "Everything that happened that day touched many souls."

- 'Burnt to death' -

The huge explosion happened around noon on Thursday, engulfing the city in clouds of billowing black smoke, leaving some of the victims charred beyond recognition.

A 68-year-old woman died Saturday morning "due to excessive inhalation of toxic fumes, bringing the death total to nine," National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesman James Eze told AFP.

Three other people, including a woman who is seven months pregnant, remain in hospital.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement Friday that "tens" of people had died in the explosion, but his spokesman Garba Shehu could not confirm that number.

Anambra state police commissioner Hosea Karma said officers were still investigating the cause of the blast.

"So far we know it's an accident," Karma told AFP. "The nozzle from the tap got removed and gas started leaking."

Karma said the plant manager, sensing danger, warned people to leave the area.

"Everyone immediately vacated the premises, but some people were inquisitive," Karma said, noting that several rubber-neckers were killed in the explosion, which razed surrounding trees and reduced vehicles to blackened metal shells.

"Then in an adjacent house, a mother and her child were burnt to death," Karma said, adding that the high death toll was preventable.

"What people should know is that whenever there is an incident, an explosion, it’s not a cinema hall, people should run away."

Explosions are common in oil-rich Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, where fuel is distributed with poorly maintained trucks on potholed roads.

Earlier in December, a tanker loaded with fuel exploded in a crowded Lagos neighbourhood, setting off a fire that injured several residents and decimated nearby vehicles and houses.

Nigeria is facing an uphill battle to upgrade its dilapidated infrastructure as the tumbling price of oil depletes its crude-dependent government coffers.