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Scores of people reported dead in Sierra Leone after fuel tanker explosion

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Scores of people are reported dead in Sierra Leone after a fuel tanker exploded just outside the capital city of Freetown early today. Umaru Fofana, who is a freelance journalist, joins us. Umaru?

UMARU FOFANA: Hi there. Yes, it is a terrible thing. I'm talking to you now from the scene of the accident, where a tanker loaded with fuel was apparently making a U-turn on the main highway in the Freetown suburb of Wellington when a truck, which was said to have lost control, rammed into the tanker, causing leakage of fuel. The nearby motorbike taxi riders took advantage of the situation and started scooping the fuel, which went on for some minutes before an explosion.

A fireball - we are not sure how that came about, but a fireball just went as the explosion happened and got the entire area, including some of the vehicles that had been stuck in this traffic due to that accident. And it led to dozens of people being burnt. And at the last check, the response agency here said that 97 charred bodies have been received at the city's central mortuary. Right now, the army, the police are here keeping people at bay, trying to clear out the street. At least dozens of burned-out motorbikes have also been cleared off the roads. But the tanker and the truck that rammed into it are still on the highway being towed away by the response agencies.

SIMON: So let me understand. There was a collision, and people trying to help themselves to some of the leaked gas were caught up in the explosion.

FOFANA: Absolutely, yes, because once it happened - it happened in a junction area in Wellington, which normally has a motorbike taxi station. So once that leakage started, the motorbike taxi riders tried to help themselves to the fuel, and then an explosion occurred. We are not sure what caused the explosion, but the explosion happened as a result of the scooping of the fuel by these motorbike taxi drivers.

SIMON: And, Umaru, what about survivors? Are they filling hospitals nearby?

FOFANA: The deputy minister of health told me a short while ago that more than a hundred survivors are receiving treatment at the main hospitals across the city. Some of them, he said, were critically injured, which probably explains why the death toll keeps rising. Initially, it was 84, and then it kept ramping up until very close to 100. So the minister said he fears that the death toll will keep rising.

SIMON: We have to ask, what's the state of the economy in Sierra Leone that so many people would converge on a leaky gas truck to try and get a little bit of fuel?

FOFANA: Well, of course, I mean, there is acute poverty in this part of the world. So when something like this happens, people just feast on it instead of trying to run away. Eyewitnesses here have told me that the tanker driver tried to fend them off. They tried to warn them to stay away because of the potential danger. But the guys would have none of that. So they kept scooping the fuel until that explosion happened. Of course, for a situation like this, people took advantage, even if it means at their own expense.

SIMON: Freelance journalist Umaru Fofana, thank you so much for your reporting, sir.

FOFANA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.