Our regular correspondent (a resident of the county’s province located remotely from Ashgabat) has sent an eye-witness report.
I found out about the fire and subsequent explosions at the arms deport from the newcasts broadcast by the Russian channels only on 8 July in the morning, i.e. 18 hours after the first explosions hit the town.
Indeed, a day before, on July 8 the outside temperature exceeded 45 degrees Celsius. In Ashgabat’s central residential districts on July 7 constant voltage jumps were recorded from 4 to 8 p.m. Despite the fact that Ashgabat residents are used to such power stoppages and shutdowns, they were indeed quite lengthy on that day. In such hot weather this is usually attributed to extremely high air temperature and worn-out Ashgabat power supply networks.
About 7 p.m. my neighbours told me that their relatives residing in the western district of Ashgabat are on the way to their house as explosion had occurred in Abadan and water, power and gas supply was cut off in the western district of Ashgabat. Yet, no precise information was available, even by word-of-mouth.
On July 8 in the morning after seeing the coverage on Russian TV channels, I headed to Abadan to check first-hand what had happened. Access to the city was opened from all directions, no checkpoints were arranged. The only thing I paid attention to was that unarmed military conscripts cordoned one kilometer of the Ashgabat-Turkmenbashi motorway. I did not notice any nervousness in the way soldiers and officers behaved.
No visible destructions along the motorway were seen. Here and there there was broken glass and in some parts roof slates were blown out. Under usual circumstances this could be attributed to dilapidated buildings and common negligence.
Access to the residential district GRES (regional power station) was blocked by road police inspectors. Since the military unit, based in Abadan, is located 50 kilometers from the Ashgabat-Turkmenbashi motorway, fuel storage with an area of 100 square meters on its territory, which had burnt to the ground, could be seen from the road. As it became known later, a shell hit there.
Shovels and other equipment were distributed among military personnel to clear rubble and fire sites. Ordnance explosions were not heard by this time. Nor were plumes of smoke visible. Eyewitness accounts, however, suggest that smoke in the epicenter of explosions did not disappear until 6 p.m. on July 8. All that could be seen from the motorway, except the burn-out fuel storage facility and the zone cordoned by military conscripts, did not point out to the real scope of the disaster.
Yet, the information received from experts and eyewitnesses proves the opposite. This is happening because the Turkmen authorities are again trying to “hide a pig in a poke” thus posing a deadly threat to their own citizens.
It turned out that first the fireworks equipment was ignited, as the Turkmen authorities stated in their version of the incident. Indeed they were recently purchased to arrange festive fireworks devoted to the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence. Pyrotechnics were stored near the entrance to the main terminal of the arms depot in the open air, which is a violation of safety rules for explosives storage.
Canvas tent was missing, which could potentially protect pyrotechnics from rays of sun.
The main terminal was fully equipped and disguised as a hill, similar to fighter aircraft storage facilities at the military airport in Ak-tepe. There was a ground floor and a basement there. The data on the number of arms stored there vary, ranging from 5000 to 50000 tons.
Eyewitnesses say that the first blast caused a plume of smoke, which looked like a nuclear mushroom. Now a huge black crater is seen instead of the former terminal.
After the ignition and explosion of pyrotechnics the main terminal set on fire. Apart from bullets for small arms and light weapons, hand grenades, light anti truck weapon grenades and other ordnance, “hail and storm” artillery systems were stored there. Therefore one can imagine the power of explosions and radius where unexploded shells sailed.
As a result of the incident the inhabitants of Abadan and the former collective farms “40 years of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic” were also affected. Unexploded shells were found even in Geokche.
According to eyewitnesses, explosions ended only by 7 a.m. on July 8. It should be noted that during Turkmenbashi’s time, a residential area was built in the unauthorized proximity to the arms depot, just 1-3 kilometers away. There are 4-5 storey apartment blocks which were constructed for the inhabitants of Firyusa who had been evicted due to the expansion of the Presidential residency in Firyusa.
The residents and buildings in this area are the most affected. A kindergarten and a school have been completely destroyed. Over 40 children with burns and injuries of varying severity were placed in the Maternal and Child Health Centre in Ashgabat alone. Over 150 adults were transported to the medical centre named after S. Niyazov. Needless to say, many injured, including kids were placed in other Ashgabat medical facilities. Healthcare practitioners switched to 24 hour working schedule.
There are contradictory data about the number of casualties – various sources refer from 50 to 200 people, however, the precise number has not been estimated yet. There are unconfirmed reports about a bigger number.
As of this writing (July 9) mine pickers, staff members from the Ministry of Defense and main office for Emergency Situations headed by the Minister of Defense and accompanied by employees of General Prosecutor’s office are working on the site. They are responsible for identifying and neutralizing unexploded ordnance, making inventory and assessing the damage, which apparently will make up dozens of millions of dollars. Investigating agencies are to find out the real reason of the tragedy and identify those guilty.
It should be mentioned that several months before the incident the General Prosecutor’s office carried out the inspection of this arms deport and identified a lot of violations. The results of the inspection were reported to the Cabinet department overseeing law-enforcement agencies. However, no measures to improve the situation have been undertaken.