Ahmedpur East/Bahawalpur - At least 153 people were killed in a fire that erupted after an oil tanker overturned in Bahawalpur area of southern Punjab early Sunday and crowds rushed to collect fuel.

The death toll from the accident, which came near Ahmedpur East town, was feared to rise as poorly equipped regional hospitals could not do much for the around 150 critically injured.

The tragedy came on the eve of Eidul Fitr, a day of celebrations that marks the end of the holy fasting month. Only a couple of days ago, more than 80 people were killed by a wave of terrorism that struck in three different parts of the country on Friday.

The speeding tanker, carrying 40,000 litres of fuel and travelling from Karachi to Lahore on a main highway, overturned on a sharp bend near Basti Ramzan Joiya – four kilometres from Ahmedpur East.

Details were unclear but some witnesses suggested the tanker had suffered a burst tyre and later caught fire when villagers in large numbers had gathered to collect the leaking oil.

Scene and scale of tragedy

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 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.

Regional police chief Raja Riffat and senior local government official Rana Mohammed Saleem Afzal, speaking to state television in the evening, said at least 123 people had been killed. “Many bodies could not be identified as they have been charred very badly,” Riffat said.

Provincial government spokesman Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan said around 20 children were among the dead.

The death toll by early night had climbed to 153, and there were fears that dozens more could fail to survive the severe burns.

The victims were inhabitants of nearby villages of Basti Ramzan Joiya, Basti Nazirabad, Basti Macchi, Basti Numberdar Mohammad Aslam, Basti Bhatti and Mauza Mehrabwala.

More than 85 motorbikes, two cars and a rickshaw were also burnt to ashes in the accident.

Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah told a private television that DNA tests were being used to identify the dead. He said the driver of the tanker had survived the crash and been taken into custody.

Rescue and Medical Inadequacy

Motorway Police, Rescue 1122, district police and Edhi Foundation ambulances and other agencies shifted the dead bodies and wounded people to hospitals after the accident.

Bahawalpur regional police officer, district police officer and deputy commissioner supervised the rescue operation.

The military said it was sending army helicopters to evacuate the wounded and hospitals were put on high alert.

Dr Aurangzeb Malik, the head of the poorly equipped Tehsil Headquarters Hospital, told The Nation that around 140 critically wounded people - with 60 to 80 percent burns - had been brought to them before they were rushed to bigger hospitals in Multan and Bahawalpur.

But even the Bahawal Victoria Hospital, the biggest hospital at the divisional headquarter of Bahawalpur, has no burns unit.

About 59 people with serious burns were airlifted to Multan’s Nishtar Hospital, but four of them expired on the way.

Nisthar Hospital has the only burns centre in the whole of southern Punjab region and is more than 150 kilometres away from the scene of the accident.

That was why a C-130 plane was engaged to shift the serious patients to far-off city of Lahore, the seat of the provincial government. Reports said the army helicopters had also airlifted some injured to Kharian

Dr Iqbal at Victoria Hospital in Bahawalpur said most of the patients suffered up to 80 percent burns on their bodies.

After being stabilised 22 patients were transferred by C-130 aircraft to hospitals in Lahore, he said. Iqbal added that some of the most badly burned were evacuated by army helicopters to Multan.

How it came!

“When it turned over the residents of the nearby settlements 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,” said regional police chief Raja Riffat.

“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.”

Another eyewitness said that the explosion came around 45 minutes after the tanker overturned. Our correspondent cited yet another local saying the tanker overturned around 5:40am and caught fire at 6:20am.

“According to initial reports, somebody tried to light a cigarette,” said rescue services spokesman Jam Sajjad Hussain.

Horrific scene

Khalil Ahmed, a 57-year-old former government employee who lives in the nearby settlement of Basti Ramzan Joiya, said he had lost 12 relatives in the fire, which firefighters extinguished in two hours. “One body has been recovered and 11 others are still missing,” he said.

“After the spill, people began calling their relatives to come and gather the oil, and some showed up from nearby villages as well. There must have been 500 people gathered when the fire began... People were collecting oil in bottles, cans and household utensils,” Khalil said.

He estimates that about 100 people from the small hamlet are missing. “The day of judgement has arrived for our village,” the villager said.

Saznoor Ahmad, 30, whose two cousins were killed in the fire, said the crowd of people screamed as the flames engulfed them. “The fire moved too fast!”.

When the flames subsided the field was strewn with bodies, and nearby were the charred shells of motorcycles and cars that the villagers had used to race to the scene. As the wounded cried out for help, residents wandered through the area looking for loved ones.

Zulkha Bibi was searching for her two sons. “Someone should tell me about my beloved sons, where are they? Are they alive or are they no longer in this world? Please tell me,” she pleaded.

Mohammed Salim ran toward the smoke carrying buckets of water and sand, but said the heat was too intense to reach those in need. “I could hear people screaming but I couldn’t get to them,” he said.

Abdul Malik, a local police officer who was also among the first to arrive, described a ‘horrible scene’. “I have never seen anything like it in my life. Victims trapped in the fireball. They were screaming for help,” he said.

When the fire subsided, “we saw bodies everywhere, so many were just skeletons. The people who were alive were in really bad shape,” he said.

Calls for caution went unheard

Police had tried to clear the area before the tanker exploded but people ignored them, government spokesman Ahmed Khan said, adding that the initial crash had blocked the road, causing a traffic tailback.

The national highway remained blocked for five hours and was opened around noon, according to a local source.

Pakistan Motorway Police spokesman Imran Shah said they received a call about the accident at around 6:30am. Motorway police raced to the scene and tried to keep people away from the tanker, he said, adding that they were ignored as residents continued filling their containers with fuel.

Oil is a precious commodity for villagers in Pakistan, where more than 60 percent of the population survives on $3 a day, according to a World Bank survey.

A loudspeaker atop a local mosque alerted villagers to the leaking fuel, and scores raced to the site with jerry cans, said Rana Mohammad Salim, deputy commissioner of Bahawalpur.

Highway police moved quickly to redirect traffic but couldn’t stop the scores of villagers who raced to collect the fuel, spokesman Imran Shah told a local TV channel.

When the fire erupted, the same mosque loudspeaker called on the remaining villagers to help put it out.

Grief, action, compensation

Social media users posted messages of grief and solidarity with the victims of the oil tanker crash as well as Friday’s attacks, as many prayed for a safe Eid.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also expressed his grief and directed the government of Punjab province, run by his brother Shabhaz Sharif, to provide “full medical assistance”.

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif reached at Nishtar Hospital and inquired after the injured. Multan Corps Commander Lt-Gen Sarfaraz Sattar was also present on this occasion.

“It’s a national tragedy. I have directed concerned authorities to make all out efforts for the treatment of the injured. The Punjab government will leave no stone unturned for offering good medical treatment to the injured,” the CM said on the occasion.

He said a high-level investigation would be launched into the tanker tragedy and announced Rs2 million compensation amount to the heirs of each deceased and Rs1 million for the each injured.

He said the prime minister had cut his London visit short and he would reach home today (Sunday).

Later, the CM went to Bahawalpur to monitor the shifting of serious patients to Lahore. There he lauded the rescue efforts made by Pakistan Army, Recue 1122 and other agencies.