LAGOS, Nigeria -- A gasoline pipeline ruptured by thieves exploded into an inferno yesterday as scavengers collected the fuel in a poor neighborhood, killing at least 260 people in the latest oil-industry disaster to strike Africa's biggest petroleum producer.
Braving a towering pillar of fire and a cloud of acrid, black smoke, thousands of people in Lagos's Abule Egba neighborhood surged around rescue workers carrying away charred bodies, hoping to catch a glimpse of missing relatives.
"My brother, my brother," wept Suboke Adebayo, 19, as an unidentified male corpse was loaded into an ambulance. Adebayo, a student, had spent hours trying unsuccessfully to contact her sibling. "I've been calling him since this morning, but I can only hear a holding tone," she said.
A woman in a yellow T-shirt sobbed uncontrollably, slapping herself on the face and clawing her own arms in grief over the devastation of bodies and gutted cars around the pipeline.
A senior official for the Nigerian Red Cross, Ige Oladimeji, said his workers counted 260 dead by nightfall and took 60 injured people to hospitals. "We are still counting [dead], but there will not be hundreds more," he said.
Residents said a gang of thieves had been illegally tapping the pipeline for months, carting away gasoline in tankers for resale.
Tapping is common in Nigeria, where many of the 130 million people live in woeful poverty amid widespread graft that makes a handful wealthy in this major oil exporter. A single pilfered can of gasoline sold on the black market can be two weeks of wages for a poor Nigerian.
But tapping also brings frequent accidents. Earlier this year, 150 people died in a similar explosion in Lagos, and a 1998 pipeline fire killed 1,500 in southern Nigeria.
Yesterday's blast, the worst in years, occurred after thieves opened the conduit during the night but left without fully sealing it, prompting hundreds of residents to rush to collect spurting gasoline with cans, buckets, and even plastic bags, witnesses said.
It was unclear what ignited the fuel just after dawn.
"There were mothers there, little children," said Emmanuel Unokhua, an engineer who lives nearby. "I was begging them to go back."
Unokhua said people had splashed fuel on him to chase him away and doused a few police officers who tried unsuccessfully to control the crowd.
"They were not arresting anyone because they had no vehicle to put them in," Unokhua said bitterly.
Bodies lay scattered around the periphery of the site. For many victims, reminders -- such as a child's flip-flop blistered by the heat and a half-melted plastic bucket -- were the only identifiable items in a fused mass of bones, skulls, and charred limbs.
Flames that nearly incinerated cars and melted electrical lines to pylons kept rescue workers away from much of the carnage until the fire began to wane in the early afternoon. Crowds of anguished people impeded the passage of fire crews and ambulances.
Owned by Nigeria's state-owned petroleum company, the pipeline delivers refined fuel for domestic consumption, so the blast was not expected to affect oil pumped for export.
"This was a preventable tragedy," said Joel Ogundere, a lawyer who lives next to the blast. "It was poverty, ignorance, and greed."