More than 150 people were killed Sunday in Pakistan when an oil tanker overturned, a crowd rushed in to collect fuel and the truck exploded, police said.
The tanker flipped over on a highway in the city of Bahawalpur in Punjab province at about 6 a.m. Seeing fuel spilling onto the road, villagers in the area, some riding motorcycles, rushed to the site with buckets and containers, said Raja Riffat, the Bahawalpur police chief.
“About 10 minutes later, the tanker exploded in a huge fireball and enveloped the people collecting petrol,” Riffat said.
The health minister of Punjab province, Khawaja Imran Nazir, said at least 153 people had died. “Several more injured people are in serious condition and the death toll could increase. It’s a sad day for the country,” he said.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire to erupt. The accident occurred along a main artery of Pakistan that connects the southern port city of Karachi with rest of the country.
Baqar Hussain, a district emergency official, said 123 bodies and more than 120 injured were brought to hospitals, where more presumably died. Many of the bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified through DNA testing, Hussain said.
The suffering was compounded by the lack of a burn unit in the district hospital. The nearest such facility is nearly 100 miles away in the city of Multan, in southern Punjab.
Officials with the Pakistan Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority said the tanker was en route from Karachi to the Punjabi capital, Lahore, carrying more than 10,500 gallons of fuel. It overturned after trying to make a sharp turn.
Transportation officials and highway police reached the site of the crash and tried to keep people away but their warnings were ignored, witnesses said.
One man who spoke to The Times by phone from Bahawalpur said he was traveling along the road by bus when traffic stopped for the accident.
“I saw more than 250 people, including women and children, gathered around the tanker with their pots and buckets,” said the man, who did not give his name. “I saw the fire and shouted at people to run away but nobody listened to me.”
The fire immediately engulfed scores of people, leaving bodies burned and charred beyond recognition, he said.
“It literally took seconds,” he said.
Mohsin ul Mulk, a correspondent for the Channel 24 TV network, described a grisly scene, with burned motorcycles and cars scattered across the highway along with kitchen utensils, pots, water coolers and buckets.
Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister, said the driver of the tanker had survived and was in police custody. Officials had launched an investigation into the matter, he said.
The Pakistani army sent soldiers and helicopters to evacuate bodies. Traffic was restored after six hours of rescue operations, officials said.
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia
9:00 a.m.: This story has been updated with confirmation of 153 dead.
8:05 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting.
2:35 a.m.: Updated with a death toll of 148.
1:45 a.m.: Updated with a death toll of 129 and a Bahawalpur dateline.
11:10 p.m.: Adds that a mosque loudspeaker told residents of the leaking oil.
10:25 p.m.: Updated to raise the death toll from 100 to 120.
This article was first published at 10:05 p.m.