“People tried to escape but were caught by the fire and reduced to ashes,” one local said of the disaster that happened late Friday when a fuel truck overturned and exploded in Sange, a small town of some 50,000 people in eastern DR Congo.
The flames from the explosion spread rapidly to the local cinema hall where “a big crowd was gathered to watch the Brazil/Netherlands match that had just finished and they were waiting for the Ghana/Uruguay clash,” said Tondo Sahizira, a 28-year-old teacher.
“They were taken by surprise and we could not save them. It’s terrible!” added Mbaka Munyerere.
The villagers, many of them children, had crowded around the tanker hoping to scope up the spilling fuel when it exploded.
Sahizira said the driver of the truck managed to escape from his cab, though injured, and told the villagers to get away because of the risk of an explosion.
“Petrol began to leak out but instead of fleeing people came to collect the fuel,” he said. A few minutes later there was an explosion and flames burst from the truck, spreading fast.
More than 230 people were killed according to a provisional estimate by the Congolese Red Cross.
A shopkeeper, Agnes Saida, said the road going through Sange was dangerous. “It is too narrow at this point, the trucks cannot overtake and often they catch people or cattle as they go past,” she said.
Most of the bodies, covered with white shrouds, still lay near the charred skeleton of the truck many hours after the accident, where a few flames flickered.
A woman wailed nearby, screaming: “We have lost our men, our children. I am dead.”
“We are currently mourning our loved ones. We are waiting to bury them, maybe in a mass grave,” said Munyerere.
Sange, a small town with a daily meat market, is located some 70 kilometres (40 miles) south of the Sud-Kivu county town of Bukavu, close to the border with Burundi.