BAHAWALPUR (Pakistan) • Pakistan observed Eid in mourning yesterday as the death toll from a fuel tanker explosion rose to 153, with scores more injured after they were caught in a fireball while collecting spilt fuel.
Dozens of grief-stricken relatives waited outside hospitals in Bahawalpur, the nearest major city to the disaster, to claim the bodies of their loved ones as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cut short a trip to London to visit the victims.
"The death toll has climbed to 153, and many are in critical condition in various hospitals in Bahawalpur and Multan," said Dr Javed Iqbal, the head of Victoria Hospital.
Around a dozen family members, carrying the blackened remains of two victims wrapped in white cloth on charpoys, tried to reach the prime minister in protest but were stopped by security personnel a few metres away.
"The day of Eid has become a day of mourning and pain for us," Mr Sharif told the media outside Victoria Hospital, adding that he has ordered an inquiry and compensation of two million rupees (S$26,500) for the families of the dead, and one million rupees for the injured.
Hospitals were struggling to treat scores of severely burned victims, with at least 118 people injured in the explosion in the eastern province of Punjab.
Many of the burn victims have been moved to the larger cities of Karachi and Lahore. Government hospitals are often under-equipped and the ones in Bahawalpur and nearby Multan were set up to handle only small numbers of patients.
Hospitals were also arranging DNA testing to identify the many bodies that were charred beyond recognition.
Eid al-Fitr, a normally joyous occasion, marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The tanker overturned early on Sunday on a main highway from Karachi to Lahore while carrying some 40,000 litres of fuel. It exploded as crowds gathered to scavenge for fuel, ignoring warnings to stay away.
Police have said that the details remain unconfirmed, but cited witnesses who reported that a tanker tyre had burst.
The accident quickly drew scores of people from a nearby village, many armed with whatever containers they could find despite warnings from the driver and police of the danger.
Minutes later, the tanker exploded, engulfing the crowd as well as dozens of other vehicles in a massive fireball that sent a plume of thick smoke into the sky.
Relatives waiting outside the hospital could not contain their grief. Ms Mumtaz Mai, a 40-year-old widow who lived with her two nephews, was beating her chest and screaming after both died in the fire.
"My world has come to an end," a weeping Ms Mai said, adding that the bodies of her nephews had been so badly burnt that she was unable to recognise them. "Where will I go now, with whom will I live? My life is but a curse."
Mr Muhammad Ayub, in his early 50s, lost his brother and nephew.
"We have been doomed. How can we celebrate Eid and what would it mean to us when we cannot even recognise the dead bodies of our loved ones?" he asked.
The fuel tanker's driver, who survived, has been detained to assist in an investigation, but early reports do not indicate human error, provincial spokesman Malik Muhammed Ahmed Khan said.
He added that a separate investigation was under way to look into why police did not disperse the crowds of people who had gathered to collect the fuel.
"Police did try but we are looking into what went wrong," he said.
Before Sunday's tragedy, Pakistanis were already grieving for at least 69 people killed in a series of militant attacks last Friday.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE