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Truck hauling oil explodes, killing at least 220 in Congo

Red Cross workers carried an injured person after an oil tanker explosion yesterday in Sange, Congo. About an hour after overturning, the tanker wreck unleashed a fireball. Red Cross workers carried an injured person after an oil tanker explosion yesterday in Sange, Congo. About an hour after overturning, the tanker wreck unleashed a fireball. (Reuters Tv)
By Max Delany
Associated Press / July 4, 2010

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SANGE, Congo — A tanker truck hauling fuel on a rural eastern Congo highway overturned, gushing oil and exploding in a massive fireball that killed at least 220 people, including many who had been watching the World Cup in flimsy roadside shacks, officials and witnesses said yesterday.

Among the dead were 61 children and 36 women, the Red Cross said. Also killed were villagers who had descended on the truck to siphon fuel illegally from the wreckage, apparently unaware of the danger, the United Nations said.

UN peacekeepers rushed to evacuate more than 200 wounded from the scene by helicopter and ambulance, while Red Cross teams carried 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, about 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, he said.

Lungwe said the injured driver was taken to a local clinic before the blast occurred. Sange is located between Uvira and the Congolese provincial capital, Bukavu, farther to the north.

In Sange, the remains of the tanker’s blackened wreck lay tipped on its side, its tires burnt off. 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 between matches, as people were watching television and milling outside.

“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-yard radius. A teeming market nearby was also reduced to ashes. “There were so many men, women, and children around when it happened,’’ Ruzibira said.

James Reynolds, 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 UN estimated the death toll at at least 220, and a police chief in Sange 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.’’

Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, said some residents were trying “to siphon the contents of the tanker’’ when it exploded. It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.

Mounoubai said the truck overturned around dusk and was carrying fuel from Bukavu to Uvira. Other officials and UN-backed Radio Okapi reported that the truck had begun its journey in Tanzania.

In a separate accident Friday involving another fuel truck, an out-of-control gasoline tanker overturned and exploded outside the gates of a local hospital in northern Nigeria, killing 14 people in an inferno in Gombe state.

Reynolds said the International Committee of the Red Cross 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,’’ he said.

A UN helicopter has so far evacuated 35 wounded to Bukavu, Mounoubai said. 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 some time after, the leaking oil caught fire and the fire spread extremely quickly.’’

The UN’s acting special representative to Congo, Leila Zerrougui, expressed condolences for the tragedy and said the UN “will do everything possible to help authorities and assist victims.’’

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