The Dirty, Deadly Forges of Sulawesi

EARLY IN THE MORNING last Christmas Eve, Chinese and Indonesian workers prepared for a maintenance operation at the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP). Located on the island of Sulawesi, IMIP is a sprawling complex of factories, smelters, and power plants. It is characterized by a tangle of pipelines and smokestacks that release particulates into the tropical air. The tens of thousands of employees, mostly migrants, live just outside its walls in makeshift shantytowns made of plywood and sheet metal, housing motorbike shops and dingy rooming houses.

The task for that day was to fix a submerged arc furnace, which melts nickel ore at extremely high temperatures, around 1,400°C (2,552°F). Over time, slag—the residue from this process—can accumulate, causing the furnace to overheat. The plan was to replace heat-damaged bricks in the inner chamber and remove the slag. With the furnace turned off, a technician began cutting into its steel shell with a flame cutter to access the interior.

However, a critical miscalculation was made: the slag inside had not cooled sufficiently and was still molten. As the technician sliced into the steel shell, the slag surged out, causing the furnace wall to collapse. The intense heat caused nearby acetylene canisters—used to fuel the flame cutters—to explode. Communication difficulties compounded the crisis, as almost none of the Chinese staff could speak fluent Indonesian, and vice versa.

As the sun rose, flames engulfed the factory building, emitting dark smoke. Workers frantically attempted to rescue their colleagues, many of whom had suffered severe burns. Screaming for help, a group hoisted a blood-covered man into the bed of a pickup truck already crowded with other victims. The on-site medical clinic was quickly overwhelmed; injured men lay on the floor in their tan uniforms, crying out in pain as nurses attended to those they could. By early afternoon, a dozen employees were confirmed dead, with many more needing intensive care. The death toll eventually rose to 21 men: eight Chinese and thirteen Indonesian.

One of the deceased was Taufik, a 40-year-old mechanic from another part of Sulawesi. Known for his quiet and serious demeanor, he had worked at IMIP for six years, earning about 8 million rupiah (approximately $500) a month with overtime—a respectable wage in rural Indonesia. Taufik found the job exhausting and had considered quitting to return to his wife, Ice Firawati, and their children in his home village. On Christmas Eve, Ice was en route to visit him, a 15-hour journey, when she received a call from one of his friends informing her that Taufik was among the victims.

The workers who perished in the fire were part of a significant industrial transition. Over the past decade, Sulawesi and other Indonesian islands have become hubs for mining and processing nickel, a crucial component for making stainless steel and essential for many electric-vehicle batteries. Outgoing President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has vigorously promoted the growth of the nickel industry, aiming to position Indonesia at the center of the global supply chain.

The tragic incident at IMIP underscores the hazards faced by workers in this rapidly expanding industry and highlights the pressing need for improved safety standards and communication protocols to prevent future accidents.

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