Death toll in South Africa tanker truck blast rises to 34

JOHANNESBURG — The death toll from a fuel truck explosion on Christmas Eve near Johannesburg’s east has risen to 34, including 10 health workers at a nearby hospital, officials say.

The truck was carrying gasoline when it got stuck under a low bridge in the town of Boksburg, sparking flames. As firefighters tried to put them out, the tanker exploded, according to emergency service officials.

A “firebomb” from the blast extensively damaged Tambo Memorial Hospital, located about 100 meters (110 yards) away, authorities said. Several health workers were in the hospital parking lot, some about to leave after their shifts and others trying to get their cars away from the fire.

In addition to the loss of life, the hospital’s emergency unit and radiology department were badly damaged, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Other dead were residents who had gathered to view the burning truck. At least 321 injured were taken to the damaged hospital, although some were later transferred to others in the Johannesburg area.

Several homes and vehicles were also damaged by the blast, officials said.

“A ball of fire in the sky,” is how resident Rolf Bjornstad described the explosion on South African website News24.

“There was heat coming into the house. I thought of my wife, my children and helping those affected,” he said.

The South African Council of Churches held a memorial service for all those killed in the crash.

The 32-year-old driver was taken into custody days after the accident but was later released by officials who said there was insufficient evidence to charge him.

The tanker truck carrying liquefied petroleum gas – used in homes and industries for heating and cooking – was on its way to Botswana from South Africa’s Indian Ocean port of Richards Bay, officials said .

The company that hired the driver, Innovative Staff Solutions, said he was not negligent. He had taken a wrong turn and was following the instructions to get back on the freeway. The clearance for the bridge was not visible but he stopped and estimated the truck would go under the bridge. But he didn’t calculate that when the front of the truck lowered into a dip, the rear would go higher.

When the rear of the truck jammed, the driver called the fire department and attempted to direct motorists and pedestrians away from the site. He collapsed after inhaling petrol fumes and was taken away by an ambulance shortly before the explosion, local media said.

The incident will be investigated, said Tania Campbell, the mayor of Ekurhuleni, the municipality that includes Boksburg.


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