At least four workers were killed, while three others were seriously injured after a massive explosion, whose cause is still unknown, rocked the Grain Marketing Board’s Lions Den depot in Mashonaland West province yesterday afternoon.
The blast was so powerful that it ripped through reinforced concrete structures, and caused a fire.
Government yesterday activated specialised investigations State agencies, including the police forensic department and the bomb disposal unit, to comb through the debris of the massive blast for clues as to its cause.
The impact of the blast could be felt some metres away from the depot, with some people reporting cracked walls on their buildings, while pieces of the reinforced silo concrete structure flung several metres away from the blast epicentre.
Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement Minister Perrance Shiri, who visited the scene of the tragic incident yesterday afternoon, confirmed security arms of Government had been called in to investigate the blast.
“We had a very unfortunate incident whereby some explosion took place in the silo complex,” he said. “We are not very sure what caused it. There are many theories as to what could have caused the explosion.
“We have now summoned forensic experts from the Zimbabwe Republic Police and other experts from various specialist departments to come and examine the site and possibly find out what could have caused the explosion.”
Minister Shiri said it was too early to speculate on what could have caused the explosion.
He said an assessment on the state of the silos would be carried out while grain that was stored in the silos would have to be put in bags and stored outside.
“We have got open silos where we use tarpaulins, but it now entails maize being put in bags for effective storage,” said Minister Shiri. “As it is, the silos will be temporarily unserviceable until the necessary repair work has been carried out.”
Some workers at the depot said the fire and resultant explosion could have been caused by an electrical fault.
Others questioned the magnitude of the blast, saying it could have been an explosive device, while gas build up in the storage infrastructure has also been cited as another potential cause.
The affected workers were part of the morning shift that was cleaning the silos.
They tried to escape through the underground chamber outlet, but were caught up in the blast.
Others affected by the blast were on the top of the silos when it occurred.
Lions Den resident and local councillor Misheck Nyarubero said he rushed to the scene after hearing the massive blast that shook his house.
“I was at home about two kilometres away when the explosion happened,” he said. “It shook the house and I thought it was an earthquake, so I went outside. People said the loud blast was coming from GMB and I went to investigate.”
“Workers there told me there were people trapped in the silo tunnel after a fire broke out from the fifth floor, causing extensive damage.”
Two of the workers were rescued alive with serious burns, while the bodies of those who died were yet to be retrieved by yesterday evening.
Briefing Government officials at the scene, depot manager Mr Obert Zhoya said they managed to put out the resultant fire which started from the silo control plant initially using a bowser provided by a local farmer.
The effort was boosted by the arrival of a fire tender from Chegutu Municipality about 120 kilometres away and another one from Zimplats in Ngezi, as those from nearby Chinhoyi Municipality were said to be down.
“There was a loud sound of an explosion and we called the police,” said Mr Zhoya.
“According to the shift manager, all the workers on the shift could be accounted for except for six who have not yet been located. We are also waiting to hear from experts as to what could have caused the fire and explosion.”
The latest development has led to the temporary closure of the silos, while grain delivered would be stacked on tarpaulin tents as a contingency measure.
Farmers delivering grain to one of the largest storage facilities in the country and in Africa were yesterday being redirected to nearby Banket and Chinhoyi silos.
The Lions’ Den silos have 29 silo bins, making them the second largest in Africa after those in Egypt and third in the world after those in Australia.
The local silos have a storage capacity of around 104 000 metric tonnes of grain.
Last year, Government invested in the refurbishment of the silos, which were built in the 1970s.