Dozens of moaning and badly burned survivors from a massive tanker blast that killed at least 230 people recovered in hospitals and clinics across eastern Congo on Sunday, two days after the wrecked fuel truck exploded on a rural highway.
President Joseph Kabila declared a two-day national mourning period, and Red Cross workers sprayed chlorine and poured disinfectant powder over the blackened scene of the explosions in the village of Sange, where priests prayed during a brief memorial service on a barren football field.
In a conflict-strewn corner of one of the world's most unstable countries, the shocking tragedy late Friday in the village of Sange was a devastating blow for residents in a still lawless region who survived back-to-back back wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002.
"It's a miserable, poor life we have here in Congo," said Muke Ndengwa, whose 15-year-old son was nearly killed in the blast. "When we had the war here, we had everything stolen from us. Now we have lost so much again."
Troubles began when the tanker hauling fuel from the provincial capital, Bukavu, overturned as it tried to pass a minibus in Sange, a small village near the Burundi border. Tipped on its side, the wrecked vehicle began gushing gasoline beside three flimsy television halls made of brick and wood, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the World Cup.
Crowds gathered around the wreck, and dozens of people began trying to collect the leaking gasoline with jerry-cans and plastic buckets, ignoring pleas from U.N. peacekeepers to move away because of the danger.
Within an hour, a fire started — nobody is sure exactly how — and a massive explosion suddenly engulfed the three TV halls and a nearby market.
Jackson Ndengwa, 15, was inside one of the makeshift halls to watch one of his favorite teams, Ghana, play Uruguay.
"The hall was full of people," he said from his hospital bed in the lakeside town of Uvira, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) to the south. "We never expected that there could be a fire like this."
"There were people with petrol on their clothes and skin and they started catching fire," Ndengwa he said. "As we were so close together I got burned, too."
Ndengwa managed to escape through a window, but sustained serious burns to his legs and stomach. His father hired a car early Saturday to transport him to Uvira where 46 wounded between the ages of 12 and 40 were brought for emergency treatment, said a doctor there, Kumba Mupepe.
In the hospital's intensive care ward, one badly burnt man screamed continuously in agony, as relatives tended to other victims nearby, their bodies covered head to toe in purple antiseptic.
"People are suffering terribly," Namweze Bahizire, a nurse, said Sunday. "Yesterday we lost two men and a woman a few hours after surgery and during the night we lost another male victim."
Burn victims and their families also filled the small, packed health clinic in Sange on Sunday. "We are still in shock and it's too early to say how life can continue here," said Kahurwa Mugirigiri, 68, who lost his wife and many relatives in the blast. "But we will never forget what happened."
U.N. spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai told The Associated Press on Sunday at least 231 died and 195 were injured in the explosion. The Red Cross said at least 61 children and 36 women were among those killed.
Most of the dead were buried in two mass graves a few miles (kilometers) from Sange.
"We have decided to make mass graves because most of the bodies are completely burnt and are not identifiable, and also to prevent the corpses from decomposing" in the tropical heat, deputy provincial Gov. Jean-Claude Kibala Nkolde told U.N. Radio Okapi.
Desperately poor people in Congo and other African nations 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.
Associated Press writers Patrice Citera in Kinshasa, Congo, Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.