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Rush to claim the dead as Sierra Leone buries fuel tanker explosion victims.

As a mass burial of Freetown’s fuel tanker explosion victims was organised for Monday afternoon, there was a rush to claim the dead.

A crowd gathered outside Connaught Hospital mortuary in the city centre where most bodies had been held for days. Some of those present were women wearing their best clothes – one clutched a photograph of a young boy. There was an acrid smell, and passers-by held their noses or covered their faces with scarves.

The deadly explosion in the Sierra Leonian capital took place on Friday evening, when the fuel tanker was hit mid-turn by a speeding truck. Dozens of people rushed towards the scene, trying to collect the leaking fuel, which they hoped to use or sell. Traffic built up, and the subsequent fire roasted passengers in minibuses and female traders who were selling soft drinks and sweets on the side of the road. The death toll had risen on Monday to at least 107, according to government and hospital sources.

In a national address on Sunday evening, Sierra Leone’s president Julius Maada Bio – who had cut short a trip to Glasgow to attend the Cop26 climate conference – declared three days of national mourning, and said surviving victims would be taken care of and treated for free.

Alpha Jalloh lost his 34-year-old nephew in the incident. After identifying the body, he was told he had to pay 500,000 leones (€39.50) to get it released from the mortuary – a huge amount in a country where the minimum wage is 600,000 leones a month. The money would go towards preparing the body and escorting it to the cemetery, and the fuel for transport, a mortuary worker said.

Coffins are taken off trucks ahead of the mass burial of victims of Freetown’s fuel tanker explosion. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Coffins are taken off trucks ahead of the mass burial of victims of Freetown’s fuel tanker explosion. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Jalloh’s nephew had been a minibus conductor, while he himself is unemployed. He said there was no way he could pay and began to argue with the worker, who said that if Jalloh could not produce the fee his nephew would have to be interred as part of a mass burial.

After this reporter shared this information with aid agency contacts, a representative from the government’s National Disaster Management Agency turned up and the charge was dropped.

Photographs

At least 72 bodies were charred beyond recognition, another mortuary worker said. When we asked him to check whether a particular teenager was being held there, on foot of a family’s request, the man scrolled through photographs of bodies on his phone. He could not confirm the boy was there, but the teenager’s family arrived, managed to identify him, and took his body away.

Six more victims had died in Connaught Hospital overnight, a medic said, as he sat outside the burns ward looking deflated.

After staff at Freetown’s hospitals said they were struggling to cope, the World Health Organisation pledged to send burn experts as well as 6.6 tonnes of emergency medical supplies. The first consignment arrived on Sunday.

Grave diggers work ahead of a mass burial of Freetown fuel tanker explosion victims on Monday. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Grave diggers work ahead of a mass burial of Freetown fuel tanker explosion victims on Monday. Photograph: Sally Hayden

On Monday afternoon, families piled on to five buses at the site of the explosion, organised by the government, for transport to the cemetery at Waterloo 20km to the southeast. Others, who couldn’t fit inside, crammed on to motorbikes and minibuses and into keke (three-wheeler) taxis.

At the cemetery the army and police bands performed in front of thousands of people – relatives, government officials, and charity workers.

The site has also served as a burial ground for victims of other disasters that this west African country of roughly eight million has faced over the past decade. Mourners walked past memorial stones for Ebola victims who died during the 2014-2015 outbreak, and some of the more than 1,100 people who perished during a devastating mudslide in 2017.

Beyond them dozens of gravediggers had worked throughout the day to dig roughly 100 graves in rows spaced along the light brown earth – 83 of them would be filled.

Many relatives ended up standing for the hours-long wait and the eventual ceremony, while dignitaries and officials sat in shaded sections under marquees. Dozens of morgue workers and medics in protective suits then came in and unloaded coffins from trucks, before prayers were said by both Muslim and Christian leaders.

United in grief

“This is a loss for Sierra Leone, ” said Bio, the president, who was introduced as the chief mourner. He said the country was united in grief, and this was not the time for blame. “As a society what can we do collectively, not just government, not just local government ... so that this doesn’t happen to anyone? It is preventable.”

Bio said it was necessary to create a “rule-based society” and “collective discipline”. He added that the same mistakes would be repeated if there was not discipline, which was met by some minimal, scattered applause.

Standing at the back of the family section was a man who said his brother, a mechanic, was somewhere among the unidentified dead. “It was very nice,” he said of the ceremony afterwards, adding that he had seen a mass burial like it before on television when the 2017 mudslide happened.

“I had nothing to do with it,” said a woman nearby, who was also grieving for a brother. “It was what the government wanted.”

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