Bloomberg-Early in the morning last Christmas Eve, Chinese and Indonesian workers prepared for a maintenance operation at the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park. A complex of factories, smelters and power plants on the island of Sulawesi, IMIP erupts in a tangle of pipelines and smokestacks that belch particulates into the tropical air. The bulk of the tens of thousands of employees live just outside its walls, migrants to a hastily built city of plywood and sheet metal shanties that shelter motorbike shops and dingy rooming houses.

The workers had been tasked with fixing a submerged arc furnace, which melts nickel ore at temperatures around 1,400C (2,552F). Over time the residue of this process, known as slag, can build up, and the furnace overheats. On this day the plan was to replace heatdamaged bricks in the inner chamber and remove slag. With the furnace turned off, a technician began slicing into its steel shell with a flame cutter, to allow access to the interior. But someone had miscalculated: The slag inside hadn’t cooled enough. In fact, it was still molten.

The slag surged out from the cut, and the wall of the furnace collapsed. According to people familiar with the incident, who asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic information, acetylene canisters left nearby—used to fuel the flame cutters—started to explode from the surging temperature. The workers trying to contain the damage were hamstrung by communication difficulties, with virtually none of the Chinese staff able to speak fluent Indonesian, and vice versa.

As the sun rose, flames licked at the exterior of the factory building, which billowed with dark smoke. Workers tried frantically to aid their colleagues, many of whom had severe burns. Screaming for help, one group hoisted a blood-covered man into the bed of a pickup truck, which was already crowded with other victims. The onsite medical clinic was overwhelmed: Still in their tan uniforms, injured men lay on the floor, crying out in pain as nurses attended to those they could. By early afternoon, a dozen employees were confirmed dead, with many more in need of intensive care. The toll would soon rise to 21 men: 8 of them Chinese, 13 Indonesian.

One of the dead was Taufik, a 40-year-old mechanic from another part of Sulawesi. (Like many Indonesians, he used only one name.) Quiet and serious, he’d worked at IMIP for six years, and with overtime could earn about 8 million rupiah ($500) a month—a respectable wage in rural Indonesia. But he found the job exhausting and had been thinking about quitting to return to his wife, Ice Firawati, and their children, who’d stayed behind in his home village. On Christmas Eve, Ice had set out to visit him, a 15-hour journey by car and ferry. She was on the road when one of his friends called to tell her that Taufik was among the victims.

He and the others killed in the fire died in the service of one of the greatest industrial transitions in modern history. Over the past decade, Sulawesi and other Indonesian islands have been transformed into hubs for mining and processing nickel. The metal is a crucial component for making stainless steel, the purpose of the facility where the explosion occurred. It’s also essential to many electric-vehicle batteries. The government of outgoing President Joko Widodo, who’s better known as Jokowi, has enthusiastically promoted the nickel industry’s growth, seeing a chance to put Indonesia at the center of global supply chains—and to create employment for the country’s roughly 280 million people.

Controlled by Chinese metals giant Tsingshan Holding Group Co., IMIP is the product of more than $30 billion in investment. Sprawling across what was once a plain of farmers’ fields and fishing hamlets on Sulawesi’s eastern shore, a short distance from nickel-mining concessions that dot the surrounding hillsides, it boasts its own seaport and airport, along with a resort-style hotel for visiting executives. IMIP has created immense numbers of jobs, with more than 100,000 employees and contractors, and accounts on its own for a major percentage of Indonesia’s exports of nickel suitable for batteries. Overall, the nickel industry has helped deliver rapid growth for Indonesia’s economy, the largest in Southeast Asia.

Even before the fire on Christmas Eve, fatal accidents were common in Indonesian nickel facilities. Trend Asia, a nongovernmental organization based in Jakarta, compiles statistics on such deaths based on media reports. From 2015 to 2022 it logged 53 fatalities; in the first 11 months of 2023, it recorded 17. (These figures aren’t necessarily comprehensive, since not all accidents make the news.)

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