ISLAMABAD - At least 141 people have been burnt alive and dozens of others injured after an oil tanker caught fire and exploded near Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province, media reports and an official said on Sunday (June 25).
The tragedy came as Pakistan was due to begin Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, with many roads crowded as people travel home for the holidays.
The tanker carrying 40,000 litres of fuel overturned on a main highway while travelling from Karachi to Lahore, near the town of Ahmedpur East, some 670km south of the capital Islamabad, reported Agence France-Presse.
Details were unclear but some witnesses suggested the tanker had suffered a burst tyre, said regional police chief Raja Riffat.
“When it turned over the residents of the nearby village of Ramzanpur Joya rushed to the site with buckets and other containers, and a large number of people on motorcycles also came and started collecting the spilling fuel,” Riffat told AFP.
“After about 10 minutes the tanker exploded in a huge fireball and enveloped the people collecting petrol. It was not clear how the fire started.”
The Pakistani military said it was sending army helicopters to evacuate the wounded, with hospitals placed on high alert.
Around 60 of the injured were taken to Bahawal Victoria Hospital and District Headquarters Hospital Sharqia in critical condition, Rescue 1122 Director General Dr Rizwan Naseer was quoted by Geo TV as saying.
Most of those taken to the hospitals got 70 per cent burn injuries, and more deaths are feared.
“According to the initial reports, somebody tried to light a cigarette, and when the spilt fuel caught fire, leading to the tanker’s explosion,” Jam Sajjad Hussain, spokesman for the rescue workers service, was cited by Reuters as saying.
Residents could be seen walking past blackened and twisted bodies piled by the side of the road. Earlier, television footage showed shooting flames and a thick plume of smoke as firefighters battled to extinguish the blaze.
The fire was put out after two hours.
The charred wreckage of dozens of 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 highway remains closed for rescue work, reported Geo TV.
The prime minister’s office said the Punjab provincial government had been directed to provide full medical assistance.
“Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz 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.
Pakistan has an appalling record of fatal traffic accidents due to poor roads, badly maintained vehicles and reckless driving.
At least 62 people including women and children were killed in southern Pakistan in 2015 when their bus collided with an oil tanker, starting a fierce blaze that left victims burnt beyond recognition.