A massive gas truck explosion killed at least 62 people in Haiti on Tuesday, after bystanders swarmed the vehicle to collect spilled fuel – a precious commodity in a nation plagued by acute fuel shortages.
The blast in Haiti’s second city of Cap-Haitien is the latest disaster to hit the poverty-wracked Caribbean nation, riven by gang violence and political paralysis.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry visited the scene of the tragedy, saying his heart was “broken” after meeting some of the dozens of injured in a local hospital.
Pictures showed the charred remains of the truck in the built-up Samarie area of the city, with surrounding buildings burnt and scarred in the explosion.
Crowds gathered at the site, where some of the dead were left on the road in body bags.
“We have now counted 62 deaths,” Deputy Mayor Patrick Almonor said, adding that authorities were still searching for victims in nearby buildings in Cap-Haitien, on the country’s northern coast.
Almonor described a horrific scene at the blast, saying he had seen dozens of 50 people “burned alive” and that it was “impossible to identify them.”
The truck is believed to have flipped over after the driver lost control while swerving to avoid a motorcycle taxi.
Haiti’s civil protection department confirmed that the truck had crashed – and that passersby had rushed to collect the escaped gas, a rare commodity amid severe fuel shortages caused by the grip of criminal gangs on the capital Port-au-Prince.
“Following this accident, civilians took the chance to collect the gas by filling up makeshift receptacles – causing a terrible explosion that led to numerous victims and major material damage,” it said in a statement.
Almonor said around 40 houses in the area were also damaged, but that no details were yet available on victim numbers inside the homes.
The Justinien University Hospital was overwhelmed with patients as the injured were transported to the facility.
“We don’t have the ability to treat the number of seriously burned people,” a nurse told AFP.
“I’m afraid we won’t be able to save them all,” she said.
A doctor at the hospital told local radio station Magik9 that two people had died there and that 40 other patients were seriously injured.
“The people are burned on more than 60% of their body,” he said.
After visiting the hospital, Prime Minister Henry said that “with a broken heart, I saw the critical condition of some of our compatriots.”
Henry flew in accompanied by extra health workers, and said in a tweet he had expressed “solidarity with the grieving families.”
He earlier promised field hospitals would be rapidly deployed to help care for the blast victims.
Henry – who has led the country since July after president Jovenel Moise was assassinated in a still-mysterious plot – declared a period of national mourning following the explosion.
National fuel crisis
Haiti has never produced enough electricity to meet the needs of its population. Even in well-off parts of the capital, the state-run Haiti electric utility only provides, at most, a few hours of power a day.
Those who can afford it rely on pricey generators, which are no help in the face of the fuel shortage caused by gangs blocking access to the country’s oil terminals in the capital and its outskirts.
In recent months, more than a dozen vehicles transporting fuel have been attacked by gangs demanding ransoms for the drivers’ release.
Demonstrators took the streets as recently as Monday protesting the rise in gasoline prices.
The lack of fuel is also hitting water access, in a country where many people rely on private companies to deliver water by truck to at-home systems.
And with no guarantee of steady power or water supply, health care providers have been forced to drastically cut back their services.
Chronically-unstable Haiti was also plunged into a new political crisis with the assassination of president Moise.
Four senior Haitian law enforcement officials have been detained and several dozen arrested in connection with the investigation. But five months after the assassination, doubts remain over who ordered the attack.