Eid celebrations in Pakistan were today overshadowed by the grisly oil tanker explosion as the death toll in the catastrophic fire rose to 157 with families rushing to hospitals to claim the bodies of their loved ones most of whom were charred beyond recognition.
The harrowing tragedy struck Pakistan’s Punjab province yesterday just a day before Eid celebrations when a tanker carrying 40,000 litres of petrol overturned and burst into flames as hundreds of villagers had gathered to collect the fuel spilled over on the highway at the Ahmedpur Sharqia area of the Bahawalpur district, some 400 km from Lahore. Rather than celebrating Eid, a large number of relatives of the victims were waiting outside hospitals in the district to claim the bodies most of which have been burnt beyond recognition and will be identified only by DNA tests.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in London to celebrate Eid along with his family members, cut short his visit and arrived this morning to visit the victims. The tanker was travelling from Karachi to Lahore when its tyre burst and the driver lost control, crashing the truck on the highway.
Hundreds of people from a nearby village ignored warnings to stay away from the tanker which had overturned and rushed to the scene to collect the spilled petrol. Minutes later the tanker exploded, engulfing the crowd as well as dozens of other vehicles in a massive fireball.
It is believed that a spark from the many cars and motorcycles that raced to the scene ignited the fuel, the Dawn reported. The death toll in the explosion today reached 157. A doctor at Bahawalpur’s Victoria Hospital in south Punjab said the latest deaths occurred at a hospital in Multan where some of the 50 critically injured were taken, many of them suffering extensive burns.
A senior rescue official in the area said the death toll could rise further as dozens are still in critical condition. The charred wreckage of the motorcycles and cars could be seen scattered on the highway, along with kitchen utensils, pots, water coolers, jerrycans and buckets which victims had brought to collect the petrol.
The fire brigade arrived on the site of the incident shortly after the blaze started and rescue operations were initiated. Firefighters fought the flames for over two hours before extinguishing the fire. Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa ordered the army to assist the civil administration in the rescue efforts.
Army helicopters were used to transport injured people from Bahawalpur to Nishtar Hospital in Multan. The prime minister’s office said the Punjab provincial government had been directed to provide full medical assistance.
“Prime Minister Sharif has expressed deep grief over the heavy loss of life in the unfortunate accident of oil tanker fire at Ahmad Pur Sharqia, Bahawalpur,” the statement said. Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif has announced Rs 2 million each for the deceased and Rs 1 million each for the injured.
The oil tanker tragedy comes about two years after 62 people, including women and children, were killed in a fire after a coach collided with an oil tanker travelling on the wrong side of the road, on the outskirts of Karachi.