Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cut short a trip abroad to rush to the side of victims of Sunday’s massive fuel tanker fire as authorities yesterday raised the death toll from the blaze to 157.
The truck, carrying about 25,000 liters of gasoline, was traveling from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital, when the driver lost control and crashed on a highway outside the town of Bahawalpur.
Alerted by an announcement over a mosque loudspeaker that an overturned tanker truck was leaking fuel, scores of villagers rushed to the scene to collect the spilled fuel when the blaze ignited.
It was not clear what triggered the fireball, but a spokesman for rescue services on Sunday said someone was believed to have lit a cigarette.
Nahid Ahmed, a doctor at the Nishter Hospital in the city of Multan, about 100km away from the site of the fire, said four of the victims that were brought from Bahawalpur had died overnight, bringing the death toll to 157.
Ahmed said 50 more severely burned victims were being treated at his hospital.
More than 118 people were injured in the fire and hospitals are struggling to treat the burn victims.
Rescue official Mohammad Baqar at a Bahawalpur hospital said 20 more victims were transported yesterday by a military C-130 plane to Lahore for better care.
Others have been sent to Karachi.
Sharif, who yesterday visited the Victoria Hospital in Bahawalpur, ordered that more of those most critically hurt be transferred to bigger hospitals in the area, Baqar said.
Dozens of grief-stricken relatives yesterday waited outside hospitals in Bahawalpur, the nearest major city to the disaster, to claim the bodies of their loved ones.
About a dozen of them, carrying the blackened remains of two victims wrapped in white cloth on charpoys, tried to reach Sharif in a protest, but were stopped by security personnel a few meters away.
Sharif announced 2 million rupees — almost US$20,000 — as financial assistance for each family that had lost a family member in the highway inferno.
Sharif also handed over checks of 1 million rupees for each burned victim being treated at the hospital in Bahawalpur.
“This is not compensation, no compensation is possible for precious human life, but it is to help the affected families in distress,” Sharif told reporters outside Victoria Hospital, expressing his prayers for those killed and for a speedy recovery of the burned victims.
“The day of Eid has become a day of mourning and pain for us,” he said, adding he has ordered an inquiry.
The disaster struck on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
“Rehabilitation and treatment of the victims is our top priority,” Punjab provincial spokesman Malik Muhammed Ahmed Khan said.
Hospitals are also arranging DNA testing to identify the many bodies that were charred beyond recognition.
Muhammad Ayub, in his early 50s, lost his brother and nephew.
“We have been doomed. How can we celebrate Eid and what would it mean to us when we cannot even recognize the dead bodies of our loved ones?” he asked.
Additional reporting by Reuters and AFP
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