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Oil tanker explodes in Sierra Leone, killing at least 99 people

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone An oil tanker truck exploded near Sierra Leone’s capital, killing at least 99 people and severely injuring dozens of others after large crowds gathered to collect leaking fuel, officials and witnesses said Saturday.

Emergency crews worked to clear the scene on Saturday in Freetown’s eastern suburb of Wellington where a burnt body and the blackened shells of cars and motorbikes blocked the road following the crash, a Reuters reporter said.

The wounded were treated in hospitals and clinics across the capital, deputy health minister Amara Jambai told Reuters.

“Both drivers came out of their vehicles and warned community residents to stay off the scene while trying to address a leakage emanating from the collision,” the agency said

Victims included people who had flocked to collect fuel leaking from the ruptured vehicle, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of the port city, said in a post on Facebook, although that post was later edited to remove the reference.

“We’ve got so many casualties, burnt corpses,” said Brima Bureh Sesay, head of the National Disaster Management Agency, in a video from the scene shared online. “It’s a terrible, terrible accident.”

Videos shared online shortly after the explosion showed people running through clouds of thick smoke as large fires lit up the night sky. Reuters was not able immediately to verify the images, but witnesses described the horror.

“We are all in shock. A lady I had just bought bread from died. A lovely woman. I can’t get over this grief,” said Abdul Kabia, crying at the crash site surrounded by mangled vehicles.

The crash provided a major challenge for Freetown’s health service already creaking from years of underfunding. The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic gutted the country’s ranks of medical staff, 250 of whom died, and the system has not recovered.

Connaught Hospital was overwhelmed with the influx of patients, so some of the injured were moved to other locations, including a military hospital, said Swaray Lengor, a programme manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“The situation at the hospital, especially Connaught hospital … is overwhelming. Inadequate medical consumables and bed capacity,” Lengor told Reuters by text message. “NGO partners were requested to support with equipment, medical commodities and food.”

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The death toll would likely rise, he said.

The World Health Organization said it would send supplies and deploy specialists in burn injuries.

“We will provide more support as needed at this terrible time for the people of Sierra Leone,” it said on Twitter.

Accidents with tanker trucks in Sub-Saharan Africa have previously killed scores of people who gathered at the site to collect spilled fuel and were hit by secondary blasts.

In this deeply impoverished country, however, crowds still rushed in to scoop up the fuel, witnesses said. It was not immediately known what caused the leaking fuel to ignite but a massive explosion soon followed.

Video obtained by The Associated Press showed a giant fireball burning in the night sky as some survivors with severe burns cried out in pain. The charred remains of some victims lay strewn at the scene, awaiting transport to mortuaries.

In 2019, a tanker explosion in Tanzania killed 85 people, while around 50 people were killed in a similar disaster in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018.

President Julius Maada Bio, who was in Scotland attending the U.N. climate talks Saturday, deplored the “horrendous loss of life.”

“My profound sympathies with families who have lost loved ones and those who have been maimed as a result,” President Julius Maada Bio tweeted. “My government will do everything to support affected families.”

Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh visited two hospitals overnight and said Sierra Leone’s National Disaster Management Agency and others would “work tirelessly” in the wake of the emergency.

“We are all deeply saddened by this national tragedy,” he said on his Facebook page.

Injured people whose clothes had burned off in the fire that followed the explosion lay naked on stretchers as nurses attended to them Saturday. Hundreds of people milled outside the main gates of the mortuary and near the hospital’s main entrance, waiting for word of their loved ones.

Osman Timbo, said his 13-year-old brother, Mohamed, was among those who had died.

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