Chaudhury, the tea vendor, lit a stove at around 5 am and there was a loud explosion. He and his family of six, including two children, never stood a chance. The ball of fire became an inferno that destroyed houses and shops within half a km.
Huge flames, almost 20 feet high, leapt out of the pipeline. It took more than two hours to put out the fire. At least 10 people were severely burnt and are being treated in a local hospital.
The 18-inch diameter pipeline supplies gas to a power plant operated by Lanco Infratech Ltd. It runs through the Nagaram village and lush fields and a coconut grove.
Relatives and other residents held angry protests alleging negligence by GAIL.
They claimed that they had often complained about gas leaks, always anticipating a tragedy like this. The pipeline, they said, was at least 30 years old and rusted but no one bothered to replace it.
Only temporary repair work was ever done, they allege. Residents pointed at a patch of cementing on the pipeline near the spot where it was ripped apart by the explosion.
Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident. Significantly, GAIL has been kept out of the probe.
State Finance Minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu said, "People are angry that GAIL authorities didn't pay heed when they complained the pipes being rusted and gas leaks."
He said that the fire had destroyed 10 acres of the coconut grove.
ONGC, the government-controlled oil company, has shut down its gasfield, just 50 kms away, after the fire.