ISLAMABAD (NYTIMES, AFP) - When a tanker truck overturned on a road in eastern Pakistan on Sunday (June 25), hundreds of people rushed towards the vehicle to collect the leaking fuel.
Using buckets, bottles and cans, they scooped up some of the 40,000 litres of fuel gushing onto the road. For about an hour, men, women and children from nearby villages, as well as some passers-by who pulled over in their cars and motorbikes, collected the "windfall", despite attempts by police to warn them away from the scene.
Then, suddenly, the truck caught fire and exploded, killing at least 153 people and seriously injuring at least 100 others.
At least 73 motorbikes and several cars were destroyed in the blast, which occurred the day before Pakistan celebrates Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan.
“The death toll has climbed to 153, and many are in critical condition in various hospitals in Bahawalpur and Multan,” Javed Iqbal, chief of Victoria hospital told AFP.
Dozens of relatives were waiting outside hospitals in Bahawalpur, the nearest major city, to claim the bodies of their loved ones as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived early Monday to visit victims after cutting short a visit to London.
The accident came after at least 69 people were killed in a series of militant attacks across Pakistan on Friday, compounding the country’s sense of grief.
"It is a horrible tragedy," said Makhdoom Syed Hassan Gillani, the parliamentary representative of Ahmedpur East, the small city in Punjab province where the disaster occurred.
"You can blame poverty 100 per cent," he added with a heavy voice. "It was poverty. It was greed. It was ignorance."
Fuel is a high-value commodity in Pakistan, so even for those aware of the risks, the prospect of obtaining it free was too powerful a lure to ignore.
Ahmedpur East has long suffered from poverty, illiteracy and a lack of modern facilities, and residents have blamed the provincial government for spending money on urban areas at the expense of rural regions.
"People brought bottles, pots, buckets and other home utensils," Gillani said. "Many people made several rounds and urged others to do the same."
He said people had planned to use the fuel for themselves and also to sell.
The devastation swept through several poor settlements near the crash site. "In one house, all eight men of the family died due to the fire," Gillani said.
He denied reports that news of the spill had been broadcast over the loudspeaker of a local mosque, prompting many to go to the scene.
The authorities were investigating what had caused the driver to lose control, leading the tanker to overturn and creating the conditions for the inferno. One official suggested that a spark from a passing vehicle had probably caused the blast, but news reports quoted witnesses blaming a lit cigarette tossed by a passer-by.
Pakistan has an appalling record of fatal traffic accidents due to poor roads, badly maintained vehicles and reckless driving.
The tanker had been travelling from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore, the province's capital. It was believed to be carrying 40,000 litres of gas and high-octane fuel, officials and the state-run media reported.
Muhammad Rizwan, a police official, said police had "kept on telling people to leave the crash site, but people wouldn't listen and more kept coming".
"We knew it was dangerous," he said, "and if there were more cars and bikes, the casualties would have been much higher." The injured were taken to the district hospital and Victoria Hospital in neighbouring Bahawalpur, but the response was hindered by a shortage of facilities to treat burn victims.
The seriously injured were ferried to a hospital in Multan, about 130km to the north, which has a burn treatment unit. The Pakistan army said it had sent two helicopters to help with the rescue efforts.
Abdul Rashid, 30, one of those injured, said he and a friend had joined in collecting the spilled fuel after passing by the area and seeing others trying to scoop it up from the overturned tanker.
"I parked my bike by the road and waited while my friend went to collect the fuel," said Rashid, who had burns on one hand and a leg. "We did not have any bottles, so we asked people and got one. The bottle was small, so my friend went thrice to collect the fuel." He said he did know what had happened to his friend after the fire broke out.
Gillani said that even though the word danger was clearly written at the rear of such a tanker, people did not take heed.
"Many were not even aware of the risk they were putting themselves into," he said.
There was no immediate information about what had caused the tanker to overturn: speeding at a sharp turn, a burst tyre or something else.
Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, expressed his grief over the loss of life, said an aide, Salman Sufi.
"The chief minister is monitoring the situation and has directed the authorities to provide the best medical facilities to the injured," Sufi said.
He said the fire had probably been started by an engine spark that caused the fuel tanker to explode, though he noted that the exact cause was being investigated.
Sufi said the driver of the tanker had avoided serious injury because the crash had taken place "long before" the explosion, and a provincial government spokesman said the driver had been taken into custody, Reuters reported.
Imran Khan, the country's most prominent opposition politician, called the accident "a national tragedy of epic proportions".
Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition, said Dr Mohammad Baqar, a senior rescue official in the area. They will have to be identified through DNA.
Abdul Malik, a local police officer who was among the first to arrive, said he had "never seen anything like it in my life", The Associated Press reported.
"Victims trapped in the fireball. They were screaming for help." When the fire subsided, he said, "we saw bodies everywhere, so many were just skeletons".