Dar es Salaam
It was at around 8.30am on Saturday when hell broke loose in the busy Tanzanian town of Morogoro, about 200 metres from the municipality’s Msamvu bus station.
Some residents of Morogoro town were seen pouring sand on their peers who had caught fire.
It was a scene of horror.
A fuel tanker, loaded with petrol and diesel heading from Dar es Salaam to Mafinga in Iringa Region, had overturned as it tried to avoid hitting a motorcyclist, before it hit a tree and later plunging into a busy street.
RUSH TO SIPHON FUEL
As it is always the case in such incidents in Tanzania, people rushed close to the tanker to siphon fuel that was spilling over — not knowing that the nation would later sent into mourning.
Before the fire broke out — and perhaps when people were blissfully siphoning the fuel, videos shot by amateurs show the moments when women, men and young children were carrying buckets and jerricans towards the tanker.
Some are seen tapping the spilling fuel from the trenches and on the ground.
Some eyewitnesses say the spillage made some sort of a circle, in which people were entangled as they passionately collected the spilling fuel.
“I think this is why most people died,’’ says a man identified as Mr Joram who witnessed the incident in which over 64 people have died and 70 overs seriously injured.
UNABLE TO ESCAPE
“What happened is, people went into this circle and when fire broke out, they couldn’t escape easily. I think that’s why we have many who have died,” he said.
“The fuel actually spilled over into some homesteads. And when there was fire, it appears that the small kitchens around those homesteads made the fire spread to a wider area,’’ he said.
In less than one hour, the fire brigade arrived and began putting out the fire.
Soldiers from the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces thronged the area to carry out a rescue operation.
Then, when the fire was completely put out, images of the aftermath showed the area around the tanker littered with charred corpses and the burned-out wreckages of motorbikes.
The most affected, according to Morogoro Regional Police Commander Wilbrod Mutafungwa, were motorcyclists, popularly known as “bodaboda”, who were close and those who went to siphon the fuel.
Most of the victims were taken to Morogoro Regional Hospital and the bodies were preserved at the hospitals’ mortuary.
It has remained unclear exactly what triggered the fire.
However, according to a bodaboda rider who was at the scene, a man struggling to rescue the driver opened covers that protect fuel tankers and the fuel spilled to nearby areas where food vendors had lit fire in the morning.
Other witnesses say one person was trying to steal the lorry’s battery and it created sparks, leading to the explosion.
Within a few minutes, a large number of people were already engulfed in flames with bodies being burnt beyond recognition.
Another eyewitness said a man who was among those scrambling for fuel was smoking a cigarette and happened to throw a piece into the fuel.
President John Pombe Magufuli, now preparing to host the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Summit, is among those shocked by the tragedy.
Ms Jenista Mhagama the minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for Policy, Parliamentary Affairs, Labour, Employment, Youth and the Disabled said the government would take care of those affected by the accident.
She said a team of chemists had gone to Morogoro and would take DNA samples so that people can identify their dead relatives.
Mr Isack Kamwele, the Minister for Works, Transport and Communication said a team of specialist doctors from Muhimbili National Hospital and Benjamin Mkapa Hospital have already arrived in Morogoro to provide specialised treatment.
Speaking at Msamvu, Morogoro Regional Commissioner, Dr Stephen Kebwe, said it is the first time such a tragedy has happened in the region.
He said the fire was contained and did not spread any other further.
“Electricity was cut off and a lot of work has been done to ensure the fire could not bring another impact,’’ said Dr Kebwe.
PREVIOUS CASES IN TANZANIA
Before this latest incident, the worst calamity was the one in Mbeya in 2002 in which 40 people died and 100 were injured when an oil tanker overturned.
Mbeya region had also witnessed a number of similar road mishaps including collisions between oil tankers and other vehicles.
But Morogoro remains the scene of another heart rending tragedy.
In April 2015, 18 people perished when a tanker collided with a bus.
Incidents of people being killed in explosions while taking fuel from incapacitated tankers are common in East Africa.
Road tragedies involving the tankers are also common in much of Africa, especially in the oil-rich Nigeria.
However, the worst recorded ones were recorded in South Sudan and Kenya where over 150 and 130 people perished in 2015 and 2009 respectively.