SANGE, Congo — A tanker truck hauling fuel on a rural eastern Congo highway overturned, gushing oil and exploding in a massive fireball that killed about 220 bystanders, including many who had been watching the World Cup in flimsy roadside shacks, officials and witnesses said Saturday.
The Red Cross said at least 61 children and 36 women were among the dead. Witnesses said dozens of people had descended on the truck to siphon fuel illegally from the wreckage, apparently unaware of the danger.
U.N. peacekeepers rushed to evacuate more than 200 wounded from the scene by helicopter and ambulance, while Red Cross teams carried the charred bodies from the scene in body bags and buried them in two mass graves a few miles away.
James Reynolds, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Congo, said at least 219 people died — 208 immediately, and another 11 after they were taken to surrounding medical facilities. The United Nations estimated the death toll at least 220, and a police chief in Sange, Flament Baliwa, put the toll at 232 dead.
The truck overturned as it was trying to pass a minibus late Friday near the village of Sange, around 20 miles north of Uvira, a town on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika near the Burundi border, said Mana Lungwe, manager of the Congolese oil company that owns the truck. The vehicle began gushing oil, then burst into flames an hour later.
Lungwe said the driver was injured in the accident and taken to a local clinic before the blast occurred.
As oil began leaking from the damaged tanker, Pakistani peacekeepers from a nearby U.N. base "came and told people to get away from the area, but people refused to leave," said Bedide Mwasha, a 45-year-old resident.
"Men, women and children, even (government) soldiers were stealing petrol," Mwasha said, adding that when night fell, one woman lit a kerosene lamp that may have ignited the blaze.
"It was so terrible, we lost so many family and friends," said Umoja Ruzibira, 25, who was about 100 yards away when he heard a huge explosion and saw a fireball engulf nearby thatch huts.