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Archive for Monday, July 5, 2010

Survivors recover from tanker blast in Congo

July 5, 2010

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— Dozens of moaning and badly burned survivors from a massive tanker blast that killed at least 230 people recovered in hospitals and clinics across eastern Congo on Sunday, two days after the wrecked fuel truck exploded on a rural highway.

President Joseph Kabila declared a two-day national mourning period, and Red Cross workers sprayed chlorine and poured disinfectant powder over the blackened scene of the explosions in the village of Sange, where priests prayed during a brief memorial service on a barren football field.

In a conflict-strewn corner of one of the world’s most unstable countries, the shocking tragedy late Friday in the village of Sange was a devastating blow for residents in a still lawless region who survived back-to-back back wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002.

“It’s a miserable, poor life we have here in Congo,” said Muke Ndengwa, whose 15-year-old son was nearly killed in the blast. “When we had the war here, we had everything stolen from us. Now we have lost so much again.”

Troubles began when the tanker hauling fuel from the provincial capital, Bukavu, overturned as it tried to pass a minibus in Sange, a small village near the Burundi border. Tipped on its side, the wrecked vehicle began gushing gasoline beside three flimsy television halls made of brick and wood, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the World Cup.

Crowds gathered around the wreck, and dozens of people began trying to collect the leaking gasoline with jerry-cans and plastic buckets, ignoring pleas from U.N. peacekeepers to move away because of the danger.

Within an hour, a fire started — nobody is sure exactly how — and a massive explosion suddenly engulfed the three TV halls and a nearby market.

Jackson Ndengwa, 15, was inside one of the makeshift halls to watch one of his favorite teams, Ghana, play Uruguay.

“The hall was full of people,” he said from his hospital bed in the lakeside town of Uvira, about 20 miles to the south. “We never expected that there could be a fire like this.”

“There were people with petrol on their clothes and skin, and they started catching fire,” Ndengwa he said. “As we were so close together I got burned, too.”

Ndengwa managed to escape through a window, but sustained serious burns to his legs and stomach. His father hired a car early Saturday to transport him to Uvira where 46 wounded between the ages of 12 and 40 were brought for emergency treatment, said a doctor there, Kumba Mupepe.

In the hospital’s intensive care ward, one badly burned man screamed continuously in agony, as relatives tended to other victims nearby, their bodies covered head to toe in purple antiseptic.

“People are suffering terribly,” Namweze Bahizire, a nurse, said Sunday. “Yesterday we lost two men and a woman a few hours after surgery and during the night we lost another male victim.”

Burn victims and their families also filled the small, packed health clinic in Sange on Sunday. “We are still in shock, and it’s too early to say how life can continue here,” said Kahurwa Mugirigiri, 68, who lost his wife and many relatives in the blast. “But we will never forget what happened.”

U.N. spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai told The Associated Press on Sunday at least 231 died and 195 were injured in the explosion. The Red Cross said at least 61 children and 36 women were among those killed.

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