CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (Reuters) – Haitian rescue workers have found 61 bodies at the site of a fuel truck explosion in the city of Cap-Haitien, a fire department official said on Wednesday, adding that the death toll was worsened by residents attempting to break open the vehicle to gather fuel.
The blast charred facades of homes and shops nearby and destroyed cars and motorcycles on Monday night after the truck flipped over, a crash that witnesses said resulted when the truck driver tried to avoid hitting a motorcycle.
A Haitian radio station cited a local official who put the death toll in the city on Haiti’s north coast at 75. But the official count, including those who died in the city’s main hospital, was not yet clear because doctors there have not yet completed a tally, they told Reuters.
The search is complete at the site of the blast, said another official, Frandy Jean, who heads Haiti’s fire brigade for the northern region.
The impact was worsened because residents were storing fuel in their homes and because some approached the truck when it flipped, Jean said, actions brought on by desperation due to severe gasoline shortages.
“The driver had warned the people not to go near the truck,” Jean said in an interview. “They did not listen. They were carrying their telephones, which they used (as flashlights), and some tried to perforate the tank with hammers.”
The tragedy prompted an emotive lament from Pope Francis and a call to prayer for the Caribbean nation, which this year has suffered a brutal wave of gang violence, a presidential assassination and a devastating earthquake.
A local radio station cited Pierrot Degaul Augustin, an official with Haiti’s North Department, saying the figure had reached 75.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry on Tuesday visited Cap-Haitien’s main hospital to meet with victims. He promised to release government funds in response to the tragedy, and said the deceased would be buried in an official state funeral.
Wednesday was the first of three days of national mourning for the victims.
Haiti suffered crippling fuel shortages for close to a month starting in October when a coalition of gangs blocked access to fuel terminals, forcing some businesses and hospitals to partially or completely shut down.
The gangs last month lifted the blockade, but many Haitians say they still struggle to find fuel.
Gangs have grown more powerful since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise, which created a political vacuum and allowed criminal groups to expand their territory.
Haiti also suffered a devastating earthquake in August that killed more than 2,000 people and destroyed homes in the country’s southern peninsula.
(Reporting by Gessika Thomas in Cap-Haitien and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; editing by Jonathan Oatis)