LAHORE: Eid celebrations in Pakistan were today overshadowed by the grisly oil tanker explosion as the death toll in the catastrophic fire rose to 160 with families rushing to hospitals to claim the bodies of their loved ones most of whom were charred beyond recognition.
The harrowing tragedy struck Pakistan's Punjab province yesterday just a day before Eid celebrations when a tanker carrying 40,000 litres of petrol overturned and burst into flames as hundreds of villagers had gathered to collect the fuel spilled over on the highway at the Ahmedpur Sharqia area of the Bahawalpur district, some 400 km from Lahore.
Rather than celebrating Eid, a large number of relatives of the victims were waiting outside hospitals in the district to claim the bodies most of which have been burnt beyond recognition and will be identified only by DNA tests.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in London to celebrate Eid along with his family members, cut short his trip and visited the victims at Victoria Hospital. The prime minister said it has been decided to hold an in- depth inquiry into the oil-tanker fire tragedy.
"We have to look into what was the condition of that tanker. We will not let this incident go ignored (without reaching any conclusionI," he said.
Sharif said, "Illiteracy and poverty lead to such accidents".
"Yesterday, some people did politics on television. It is inappropriate. There should be no politics on such tragic occasions, when we should console the injured and affected,” he said.
The tanker was travelling from Karachi to Lahore when its tyre burst and the driver lost control crashing the truck on the highway.
Hundreds of people from a nearby village ignored warnings to stay away from the tanker which had overturned and rushed to the scene to collect the spilled petrol.
Minutes later the tanker exploded, engulfing the crowd as well as dozens of other vehicles in a massive fireball.
It is believed that a spark from the many cars and motorcycles that raced to the scene ignited the fuel.
The death toll in the massive inferno today reached 160 as nine critically injured patients including four children today died in Multan, Faisalabad and Lahore hospitals.
Doctors are struggling to save the lives of around 40 patients who have received 60 per cent burn injuries, a senior Rescue 1122 official told PTI.
Most of the bodies kept in the cold storage of the Quaid-i-Azam Medical College (QAMC) Bahawalpur could not be identified.
"The bodies will be handed over to the families after DNA tests. The assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) has been sought in this regard," the official said, adding the tests may take several days and the families will have to wait for the burial.
The charred wreckage of the motorcycles and cars could be seen scattered on the highway, along with kitchen utensils, pots, water coolers, jerrycans and buckets which victims had brought to collect the petrol.
Video images of the people gathered to collect petrol from the overturned oil tanker emerged, showing people filling their bikes with the spilled oil and collecting it in bottles and cans.
The leaking fuel was even flowing along the highway in the fields. A number of people were seen sitting near the fields collecting fuel in cans and bottles.
"The motorway police personnel who also reached the accident site asked them to leave the place but they started collecting petrol. Suddenly the tanker exploded and within seconds the fire erupted giving no chance to the people present there to leave the place," Regional Police Officer Bahawalpur Raja Rifat said.
Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa ordered the army to assist the civil administration in the rescue efforts.
Army helicopters were used to transport injured people from Bahawalpur to Nishtar Hospital in Multan.
The prime minister's office said the Punjab provincial government had been directed to provide full medical assistance.
Sharif gave away the cheques of Rs 1 million each to the injured and said Rs 2 million would be given as compensation to the families of those who lost their lives.
The oil tanker tragedy comes about two years after 62 people, including women and children, were killed in a fire after a coach collided with an oil tanker travelling on the wrong side of the road, on the outskirts of Karachi.