LAGOS - “Tens” of people were killed in a huge Christmas Eve blast at an industrial gas plant in southeastern Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari said Friday.

In an emailed press statement, Buhari said he was “greatly shaken and shocked by such large scale loss of human lives in a single industrial accident.” The blast at the gas plant happened around noon Thursday, engulfing the southeastern industrial city of Nnewi in black clouds of billowing smoke and leaving some victims charred beyond recognition.

The fire raged for hours, gutting surrounding buildings and cars, with incinerated corpses later found face down in the smouldering rubble. Nnewi resident Ilochonwu Prince, who lives near the plant, said he thought a house had collapsed when he heard the blast at around 11:30 am on Thursday.

“When there is a sound like that you run for your life, the volume was so high,” Prince said to AFP.

“It was the 24th, they wanted to buy gas that they would use with their families for Christmas,” said the 26-year-old student, his voice shaking with emotion. “I saw four or five bodies that were dead already, the fire burnt them to ashes,” Prince said. “Most of them there, they were people on vacation, and they are just gone like that.”

He said no one knew what set off the explosion because “none of them that were there survived; now nobody has a good story of what actually happened.” Authorities have given varying tolls. “It was a huge inferno,” police spokesman Ali Okechukwu told AFP. “We have found six bodies outside the perimeter, two more bodies were found in the adjoining building, bringing the total number of casualties to eight.”

Okechukwu, who said a further six people were injured, added that an investigation into the explosion was under way. The gas-fuelled fire spread to a large surrounding area instantly, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesman James Eze told AFP.