Tanzania was in mourning yesterday, as the East African nation prepared to bury 69 people who perished when a crashed fuel tanker exploded as crowds rushed to syphon off leaking petrol.
The deadly blast, which took place on Saturday near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa.
President John Magufuli declared a period of mourning through today. He will be represented at the funerals by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an official statement said.
“We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter to the national hospital in Dar es Salaam,” Majaliwa told residents in Morogoro, 200km west of Dar es Salaam.
The number of injured stood at 66, Majaliwa said. The burials were due to start yesterday afternoon after relatives had identified the dead.
“The preparations for the burials have been completed. Individual graves have been dug and the coffins are ready,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jenista Mhagama said, adding that experts were available to offer psychological counselling to the victims’ relatives.
DNA tests would be carried out on bodies that were no longer recognisable, Mhagama said, adding that families could take the remains of their loved ones and organise their own burials if they preferred. Witnesses said the truck tipped over trying to avoid a motorcycle, before drivers of motorcycle taxis known as “boda-boda” as well as locals flocked to the scene to collect fuel.
The explosion was triggered when a man tried to retrieve the truck’s battery, creating sparks that ignited the fuel, according to the region’s governor. Footage from the scene showed the truck engulfed in fierce flames and huge clouds of black smoke, with charred bodies and the burnt-out remains of motorcycle taxis scattered on the ground among scorched trees.
A video posted on social media taken before the explosion showed dozens of people carrying yellow jerricans around the truck. “We arrived at the scene with two neighbours just after the truck was overturned. While some good Samaritans were trying to get the driver and the other two people out of the truck, others were jostling each other, equipped with jerricans, to collect petrol,” teacher January Michael told AFP.
“At the same time, someone was trying to pull the battery out of the vehicle. We warned that the truck could explode at any moment but no one wanted to listen, so we went on our way, but we had barely turned on our heels when we heard the explosion.”
President Magufuli yesterday visited some of those injured in the blast who had been transferred to a hospital in Dar es Salaam. “May God heal you,” he said to the 43 patients, some in very serious condition, according to the doctors who accompanied the president. Prime Minister Majaliwa meanwhile announced that a special commission would be established to investigate if any management failures had contributed to the disaster.
“While our now-dead compatriots were gathering to syphon fuel, did anyone try to stop them?” Majaliwa asked. Magufuli has called for people to stop the dangerous practice of stealing fuel in such a way, a common event in many poor parts of Africa. He issued a statement saying he was “very shocked” by the looting of fuel from damaged vehicles. “There are vehicles that carry dangerous fuel oil, as in this case in Morogoro, there are others that carry toxic chemicals or explosives, let’s stop this practice, please,” Magufuli said.
Last month, 45 people were killed and more than 100 injured in central Nigeria when a petrol tanker crashed and then exploded as people tried to take the fuel. In May, a similar incident occurred in Niger just a short distance from the airport in the capital Niamey, leaving almost 80 people dead. Among the deadliest such disasters, 292 people lost their lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2010, and in September 2015 at least 203 people died the South Sudan town of Maridi.