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Port Harcourt, Nigeria - More than 100 people who rushed to scoop up fuel after a Nigerian petrol tanker tipped over on Thursday were burned to death when the vehicle and spilled oil caught fire.
Children were among those killed, while dozens more were badly burned, despite a warning from troops who arrived at the crash site that a blaze could ignite at any moment.
More than 85 victims were later buried at the scene in a mass grave.
The tanker driving in the southern Rivers state swerved trying to avoid three oncoming vehicles including a bus, said Kayode Olagunju, head of the Federal Road Safety Commission in the state.
Shortly after the collision, hundreds of locals in the Ahoada area flocked to the scene to collect the spilling fuel.
Some troops who reached the site before the fire broke out told people to clear off, but many ignored the warning, an official from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said.
Military personnel “got to the scene before us. They warned people to leave the scene to avoid disaster. But many of them were busy scooping fuel. They disobeyed,” said Emenike Umesi of NEMA.
The state's information commissioner, Ibim Semenitari, told AFP that “more than 100 people were killed in the inferno... while around 50 with severe burns have been hospitalised.”
Large excavators were brought to the site on a major inter-state highway to dig a mass grave for victims whose bodies were too badly damaged to be transported or recognised.
“They couldn't be moved,” Semenitari said, putting the number of those already buried at more than 85.
Some of those being treated at the hospital were also burned beyond recognition, said Geoffrey Ikogha, a local chief in Ahoada, near the oil hub of Port Harcourt.
He confirmed that women and children were among those killed.
Given the severity of the burns suffered by some at the hospital, the toll could yet increase, Semenitari told AFP.
“There is a chance that we could lose 10 to 15 more... medically, they are in a bad state,” she said.
The number of family and friends at the General Hospital in Ahoada was huge, with many sobbing uncontrollably.
“Security people are having a tough time controlling the surging crowd,” said Ikogha. “The situation is tragic and pathetic.”
Many of the dead were motorcycle taxi operators, known locally as “Okada”, who raced to fill up their tanks after learning of the crash, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.
Motorcycle taxi driver Kingsley Jafure said the collision occurred at roughly 6:00 am, and that the petrol caught fire about 90 minutes later, but officials said the time between the crash and the blaze was shorter.
“At about 7:30 while I was inside trying to decide whether to go (scoop fuel) or not. That is when I saw that the tanker exploded,” Jafure said.
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan lamented “the fact that once again, so many Nigerian lives have been lost in an avoidable fuel fire disaster.”
Fuel leaks and oil tanker accidents in Nigeria often draw huge crowds and many deaths have been caused by accidental fires.
Major road accidents, often involving poorly maintained large-haul trucks, are also common in the country, where many roads are in terrible condition.
Olagunju of the road safety agency declined to comment on the state of the roads in the area, or the potential causes of the crash, saying he did not want to undermine the investigation.
Rivers Governor Chibuike Amaechi demanded a full probe in a statement released by his office, which called the event an “avoidable tragedy.”
In October 1998, more than 1 000 people died at Jesse, in the southeastern Delta state, when a pipeline exploded as people tried to steal fuel.
In April last year, a fuel tanker overturned at an army checkpoint in the central part of the country, sparking an inferno in which some 50 people were killed.
More than 17 000 people died in about 31,000 road accidents across Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, between 2007 and 2009, according to the road federal road safety agency's 2010 report, the most recent published. - Sapa-AFP