An oil tanker truck exploded near Sierra Leone’s capital, killing at least 98 people and severely injuring dozens of others after large crowds gathered to collect leaking fuel, officials and witnesses said Saturday.
The explosion happened late Friday when the tanker collided with another truck as it was pulling into a gas station near a busy intersection in Wellington, just east of the capital of Freetown, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.
“Both drivers came out of their vehicles and warned community residents to stay off the scene while trying to address a leakage emanating from the collision,” the agency said.
In this deeply impoverished country, however, crowds still rushed in to scoop up fuel, witnesses said. It was not immediately known what caused the leaking fuel to ignite, but a massive explosion soon followed.
Video obtained by The Associated Press showed a giant fireball burning in the night sky as some survivors with severe burns cried out in pain. Charred remains of the victims lay strewn at the scene, awaiting transport to mortuaries.
Nearly 100 injured people were taken to area hospitals, officials said. About 30 severely burned people at Connaught Hospital were not expected to survive, according to Foday Musa, a staff member in the intensive care unit.
Injured people whose clothes had burned off in the fire that followed the explosion lay naked on stretchers as nurses attended to them Saturday. Hundreds of people milled outside the main gates of the mortuary and near the hospital’s main entrance waiting for word of their loved ones.
Hospital officials called in as many doctors and nurses as they could overnight to tend to the wounded. The country’s health care sector is still recovering from the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, which killed many of the West African nation’s doctors and nurses.
President Julius Maada Bio, who was in Scotland attending the United Nations climate talks Saturday, deplored the “horrendous loss of life.”
“My profound sympathies with families who have lost loved ones and those who have been maimed as a result,” he tweeted.
Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh visited two hospitals overnight and said Sierra Leone’s National Disaster Management Agency and others would “work tirelessly” in the wake of the emergency.
“We are all deeply saddened by this national tragedy, and it is indeed a difficult time for our country,” he said on his Facebook page.