A tanker truck hauling fuel on a rural eastern Congo highway overturned, gushing oil and exploding in a massive fireball that killed about 220 bystanders, including many who had been watching the World Cup in flimsy roadside shacks, officials and witnesses said Saturday.
The Red Cross said at least 61 children and 36 women were among the dead. Witnesses said dozens of people had descended on the truck to siphon fuel illegally from the wreckage with jerry-cans and plastic buckets, apparently unaware of the danger.
U.N. peacekeepers rushed to evacuate more than 200 wounded from the scene by helicopter and ambulance, while Red Cross teams carried the charred bodies from the scene in body bags and buried them in two mass graves a few miles away.
The truck overturned as it was trying to pass a minibus late Friday near the village of Sange, around 20 miles north of Uvira, a town on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika near the Burundi border, said Mana Lungwe, manager of the Congolese oil company that owns the truck. The vehicle began gushing oil, then burst into flames an hour later.
Lungwe said the driver was injured in the accident and taken to a local clinic before the blast occurred. Sange is located between Uvira and the Congolese provincial capital, Bukavu, further to the north.
As oil began leaking from the damaged tanker, Pakistani peacekeepers from a nearby U.N. base "came and told people to get away from the area, but people refused to leave," said Bedide Mwasha, a 45-year-old resident.
"Men, women and children, even (government) soldiers were stealing petrol," Mwasha said, adding that when night fell, one woman lit a kerosene lamp that may have ignited the blaze.
In Sange on Saturday, the remains of the white tanker's blackened carcass lay tipped on its side, its tires burnt off, one small flame still leaping from the outside of the wrecked fuel container. Along the side of the road a few yards away, the remains of three wood and brick shacks smoldered where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the World Cup. The explosion took place in between matches, as people were watching television and milling outside.
Congolese Red Cross workers wearing masks over their faces to ward off the stench of smoldering flesh carried corpses away on stretchers.
"It was so terrible, we lost so many family and friends," said Umoja Ruzibira, 25, who was about 100 yards away when he heard a huge explosion and saw a fireball engulf thatch huts in a 20 yards radius. A teeming market nearby had also been reduced to ashes. "There were so many men, women and children around when it happened," Ruzibira said.
James Reynolds, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Congo, said at least 219 people died — 208 immediately, and another 11 from burn wounds after they were taken to surrounding medical facilities. The U.N. estimated the death toll at least 220, and a police chief in Sange, Flament Baliwa, put the toll at 232 dead.
"Many of the bodies were burnt far beyond recognition," the Kinshasa-based Reynolds said. "It's a terrible scene," and a tragedy, he added, "for people who didn't have very much to begin with."
Desperately poor people in Congo — which is still struggling to recover from a 1998-2002 war — often descend quickly around damaged or disabled oil trucks leaking fuel on roads and highways, carting it away with plastic jugs, unaware of the danger of doing so.
Some of the worst tragedies have occurred in Nigeria, where thousands have died as crowds siphoned fuel from ruptured or pierced oil pipelines that subsequently exploded. In a separate accident Friday involving another fuel truck, an out-of-control gasoline tanker flipped over and exploded outside the gates of a local hospital in northern Nigeria, killing 14 people in an inferno in Gombe state.
Reynolds said the ICRC has dispatched medical supplies and body bags to collect the dead and help wounded alongside local volunteers for Congo's Red Cross.
"We're doing our best to ensure that the wounded are treated as well as possible," Reynolds said. "The more lightly burned or less injured are being treated on the spot at a health center in Sange."
Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said a U.N. helicopter evacuated 35 wounded to Bukavu. Other peacekeepers were taking more wounded to nearby hospitals by ambulance.
Reynolds said the casualty toll was likely high in part because, although the town was small, "it was densely populated, it was close to a market, and a lot of the houses are made with thatched roofing."
After the truck flipped over and began gushing fuel, "a big crowd rapidly gathered around to see what happened," Reynolds said. "And sometime after, the leaking oil caught fire and the fire spread extremely quickly."
Mounoubai said the truck overturned around dusk and was carrying fuel from Bukavu to Uvira. Lungwe, the truck's owner, said the tanker had begun its journey in the Kenyan city of Eldoret, then traveled through Uganda and Rwanda before heading into Congo.
The U.N.'s acting special representative to Congo, Leila Zerrougui, expressed condolences for the tragedy and said the U.N. "will do everything possible to help authorities and assist victims."