Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Relatives of the deceased and injured from Friday fuel explosion in east Freetown, Sierra Leone, gathered at hospitals across the city in search of their missing loved ones.

Dozens waited Sunday in the complex of Connaught Hospital, central Freetown, where the largest number of injured were taken.

On one wall were lists – some typed, others handwritten – of patients identified. A young man asked for a pen so he could write his phone number next to his brother’s name and said he still had no information about his brother’s condition. Another man said his son was in hospital but was not “damaged”, and he hoped to take him home soon.

The death toll from Friday night’s disaster has risen to 101, according to officials from Sierra Leone’s National Disaster Management Agency. The West African country has declared three days of national mourning.

The blast happened after a fuel tanker, which was turning on a busy road, was hit by a speed truck. In the aftermath of the accident, dozens of people rushed forward to fetch the leaking fuel in containers, hoping to use or sell it.

Ibrahim Tucker said he was visiting his sister in the area when the blast occurred.

“I did not see what caused the fire, I only saw flames,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I ran away… People are really very damaged [injured] – the people who did not die. Many people lost their lives and some really needed medical attention, many of them. “

Hassan Kanu, 52, a local community worker who had contacts at the Red Cross, said he called them to remove bodies in the aftermath. “They showed up dressed as if they were fighting Ebola and took the bodies to their vehicle,” he said.

Kanu said the people near the tanker when the explosion happened “turned into ash so you could not recognize their faces”.

He described how a motorcycle driver tried to put out the flames that engulfed him by rushing to a water tank with his bike on fire. “He is at the hospital [now] and we do not know whether he is alive or dead. The fire was over his body. “

Kanu said many people in the area lost their existence due to the widespread destruction.

“Today is a sad day for us and we can not even have food or anything to eat … We need help,” he said.

Burned car and motorcycles at the site of a fuel explosion in Freetown, Sierra Leone [File: Handout via Reuters]

Many of the victims were female traders selling small goods along the usually busy road.

“Many of my friends are missing,” said Aminata Susan Kamara, 27, who sells soft drinks.

She said she heard the sound of the vehicles crashing before people started speeding forward and called their family members over the phone to fetch fuel from them.

Like other witnesses, she said the driver of the tanker got off and shouted at people to stay away. After that, she left to go home, but realized from a distance that a fire had broken out.

Chaos ensued, and Kamara said some people trapped in minibuses died because the conductor refused to let them out until they paid their fares – a story repeated by another witness.

Aminata Susan Kamara, 27, who sells soft drinks in the vicinity of the blast, said many of her friends are still missing after Friday’s blast. [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]

Young men were searching for scrap metal near charred vehicles and areas of ash-covered ground that were still smoking on Saturday. A crowd stood yawning at what they said was a piece of burnt meat.

The World Health Organization has said it is working to deploy experts for burn care and will send 6.6 tonnes of emergency medical supplies to help the victims.

Survivors will have significant long-term needs, including plastic surgery, physiotherapy and life-threatening counseling, says Colonel Dr Stephen Sevalie, who oversees medical care at the 34 Military Hospital, where seven people died after being admitted and about 20 were treated in what was once a COVID-19 department.

“We have to deal with what we have. We are compiling plans, ”said Sevalie.

President Julius Maada Bio cut short a visit to the UK, where he attended the COP26 climate conference, to return and meet victims of the disaster. He visited the site of the blast on Sunday morning.

“Let us be law-abiding,” he told the crowd. “We lost more than 100 of our compatriots in a single case and now we are struggling with about a hundred survivors in the hospitals. It is a moment to come together and avoid the blame … We must say that we will never make such a mistake again. ”

“This national tragedy is heartbreaking,” he added in a televised speech Sunday night, saying he had reassured the victims of the government’s commitment to support them.

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