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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gas tanker explosion kills more than 40 in Liberia

By Clair MacDougall and Emma Bubola

Dozens of people were killed on a roadside in Liberia after they rushed to scoop up fuel from an overturned tanker before it exploded, officials said.

Officials have said more than 40 people died in the blast on Tuesday, but the country’s health minister, Wilhelmina Jallah, said in a telephone interview that the number of fatalities could rise because an additional 83 people were injured.

A video circulating on social media showed people running from the explosion, some of them wrapped in flames, as thick, black smoke rose from the tanker.

“These guys risked their lives for little or nothing,” Jacob Vesselee, the regional traffic commander, said in a phone call.

Living standards are dire in Liberia, where more than four-fifths of the population do not have sufficient access to food, according to the World Bank, and prices for staples like rice and oil have soared over the past two years.

In November, Liberia held largely peaceful presidential elections in which the rising cost of living emerged as a major strike against the government led by former soccer star George Weah, who ultimately lost to Joseph Boakai.

The tanker overturned about 2 p.m. while it was overtaking another car in the town of Totota, in north-central Liberia, Vesselee said, drawing people to the scene before the vehicle exploded.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst road-safety record in the world, according to the United Nations.

Rescuers were still trying to determine the exact number of the victims by going from home to home and questioning families because not all the bodies were recognizable, Dr. Francis Kateh, Liberia’s chief medical officer, told the local channel Super Bongese TV.

“Some of the people burned beyond recognition,” he said. “Some of them turned into ashes.”

The majority of the injured were transported about 70 miles to the country’s capital, Monrovia, Jallah, the health minister, said.

Jerry Brown, the CEO of the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, the largest hospital in Liberia, said the hospital received 28 people on Wednesday with burns. Two of them have since died.

He added that while the hospital has capable doctors, it does not have a specialized burn unit, forcing them to turn the trauma section into a makeshift burn unit.

“Our capacity to treat burns is dismal,” said Brown, adding that the hospital could handle four or five burn cases at a time. “It’s a big challenge.”

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