The death toll from the explosion of a fuel tanker truck in Haiti’s northern city of Cap-Haitien has risen to 75, according to local reports, as the Caribbean nation struggles to cope with the latest in a series of political crises and natural disasters.
The truck derailed in Haiti’s second-largest city early on Tuesday while trying to avoid running over a motorbike.
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Witnesses say residents rushed towards the tanker after the accident to collect some of the spilled petrol before the vehicle exploded into a fireball, damaging cars, homes and shops in the neighbourhood.
Pierrot Degaul Augustin, an official with Haiti’s North Department, was cited by a local radio station as saying the death toll had reached 75 on Wednesday.
Frandy Jean, who heads Haiti’s fire brigade for the north of the country, said fuel stored at nearby homes and people approaching the truck after it flipped made the outcome of Tuesday’s explosion worse.
“The driver had warned the people not to go near the truck,” Jean told the Reuters news agency. “They did not listen. They were carrying their telephones, which they used [as flashlights], and some tried to perforate the tank with hammers.”
Haiti has been suffering from fuel shortages, exasperated by a monthlong blockade by gangs earlier this year on fuel terminals in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding areas.
The blockade was eased in November as hospitals were on the verge of shutting down, but shortages and spiralling petrol prices have persisted.
Pope Francis voiced solidarity with the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the explosion, saying on Wednesday that they are “so sorely tried”.
In the past few hours there has been a devastating explosion in #Haiti in which many people, including children, lost their lives. I am close to the families of the victims, as well as the injured. Let us #PrayTogether for these our brothers and sisters who are so sorely tried.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) December 15, 2021
“Poor Haiti, one thing after another,” Francis said. “They are a people who are suffering. Let us pray, pray for Haiti. They are good people, good people, religious people. But they are suffering so much.”
A day earlier, Prime Minister Ariel Henry visited Justinien University Hospital, Cap-Haitien’s largest hospital, where there were not enough beds to tend to the wounded.
“We are sad that so many people got hurt and so many people died,” Henry said during a news conference.
He later announced on Twitter that the government is preparing state funerals for the victims and releasing funds to aid with the tragedy.
More than 50 people were injured in the blast, according to authorities.
Patrick Almonor, deputy mayor of Cap-Haitien, said he had seen dozens of people “burned alive”, adding that it was “impossible to identify them”.
Jean Gracia Coq, medical director at the Justinien University Hospital, said 14 people had died while being treated for wounds caused by the blast.
“We need all the help we can get. The hospital is not used to having so many injured,” he said. “The shortages have made people let down their guard and not take the precautions that should be taken with regards to fuel.”
Patients with burns on as much as 50 percent of their bodies were on the hospital’s porch due to lack of space inside the facility, said Gracia Coq, adding that the hospital is accustomed to treating burn victims from explosions in homes – incidents that have involved up to 20 people.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti has been suffering from periodic natural disasters, gang violence and a longstanding political crisis made worse by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July.
The country also has struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in August that killed more than 2,200 people.