CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) — A gasoline tanker overturned and exploded in northern Haiti, unleashing a fireball that swept through homes and businesses on its way to killing at least 60 people in the latest tragedy to befall the Caribbean nation.
The blast occurred shortly after midnight in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, along the northern coast. Hours later, at dawn Tuesday, buildings and overturned vehicles were still fuming as firefighters covered the burned bodies of the young victims in white sheets and loaded them onto the back of a construction truck.
Hundreds of Haitians — who aren’t easily shocked amid so much of their country’s misfortune — looked on from rooftops in disbelief at the loss of so much life. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, himself a physician, visited a hospital where victims bandaged head to toe were fighting for their lives amid a shortage of medical supplies and health workers.
“It’s horrible what happened,” said Patrick Almonor, deputy mayor of Cap-Haitien, adding that he expects the death toll to rise as first responders comb through buildings gutted by the fire. “We lost so many lives.”
Early reports indicate that the tanker was trying to avoid an oncoming motorcycle when it flipped. Onlookers then rushed to the scene with buckets to scoop up what they could of the tanker’s valuable cargo, likely for resale on the black market, as the fuel spilled toward a nearby pile of smoldering trash.
“It was after midnight and I heard a loud noise so I asked one of my boys to go and look. He told me a gasoline truck exploded,” said Abraham Joanis, 61, as he carried around a guitar rescued unscathed from the charred remains of his home, one of 50 gutted by the blaze.
“Right away, I left with my family, and I headed the other way to the bridge,” he added.
Contributing to the high death toll is the desperation that has forced impoverished Haitians in recent months to scramble for gasoline amid severe shortages that have shuttered gas stations, sent fuel prices on the black market spiraling and forced businesses to close as the U.S. and Canadian governments warn their citizens to leave while they still can.
The shortages are the latest manifestation of a society on the brink ever since the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake a few weeks later that killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.
The country of more than 11 million people also has been hit by a spike in gang-related kidnappings, including 17 missionaries with a U.S. religious organization who were abducted in mid-October. Five of them have been released but another 12 are still being held.
“It’s terrible what our country has to go through,” said Dave Larose, a civil engineer who works in Cap-Haitien.
Hospitals in Haiti’s second largest city seemed ill equipped to deal with the disaster.
Burn victims at Justinien University Hospital screamed in agony as they pleaded for basic supplies and more medical staff.
Henry, wearing a biohazard suit, clasped his hands and leaned over to console one man collapsed on the hospital’s concrete floor because there were not enough beds in the historic city’s largest hospital.
The prime minister promised more help in the form of field hospitals and a contingent of medical professionals. But minutes after he left the facility, five more patients died.
“The entire Haitian nation is grieving,” Henry said on Twitter while declaring three days of national mourning. “It is with a torn heart that I see the critical condition of some of our compatriots admitted to this facility.”