File picture: Zinyange Auntony/AFP

Harare - Forty-two people are feared dead after a bus headed for South Africa caught fire along the Beitbridge-Bulawayo road in Zimbabwe. 

National police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Charity Charamba told ZBC News on Friday that at least 20 more people suffered injuries in the blaze that happened late on Thursday.

Preliminary investigations suggested the fire was caused by an explosion of hazardous substances that were on the bus.

The bus was coming from Zvishavane, a mining town in Midlands province, and headed for Musina, a border town in South Africa's Limpopo province.

Fire engulfed the bus at 11 pm near West Nicholson in Matabeleland South. Reports said a gas cylinder in the luggage compartment of the bus exploded.

Survivors and eye witnesses told of the nightmare that followed as the bus turned into a fireball and people tried desperately to get out. Many were burnt alive, their screams piercing the night calm.

“First there was a smell, we could smell gas. One of the passengers then went over and told the driver, whose first reaction was to turn on the lights inside the bus. At that moment there was a huge explosion and there was fire everywhere. The heat was intense,” one survivor said.

Khulekani Ndlovu, a motorist who was at the scene moments after the bus caught fire, said: “It was hell on earth. There was just nothing one could do to help. I have never seen anything like it.

The bus was carrying passengers who planned to spend the night and shop in Musina.

A police spokesperson said police would require forensic analysis of the remains to determine the number of dead, but the death toll would be “substantial”.

It is the second bus disaster inside two weeks after two buses collided on November 7, killing 47 people.

At least 27 people were admitted at Gwanda District Hospital after suffering burns.

The high cost of gas in Zimbabwe has prompted many Zimbabweans to journey with gas cylinders to neighbouring South Africa for a refill. Zimbabweans pay an average $10 (bonds)/kg for gas, while the price in South African is roughly five times less at R25/kg.

African News Agency (ANA)