Morticians stacked bodies onto a tray at Brazzaville’s main morgue on Tuesday as the death toll rose to at least 236 from a conflagration at an armoury that catapulted shells, rockets and other munitions into a densely populated area in the capital of the Republic of Congo.
Police said international firefighters had brought the main blaze under control by Tuesday morning and prevented it spreading to a second munitions depot just 100 metres away. The second depot contains even heavier-calibre weapons, including Stalin’s Organ multiple rocket launchers, a military source said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
It was unclear whether rescue efforts could start in earnest on Tuesday, more than 48 hours after the blasts. The military source said there were plans for the controlled destruction of the munitions in the second depot, which likely will delay any attempts to dig into the rubble to find possible survivors or bodies.
There are fears that undetonated munitions have been catapulted kilometres away by the blasts and that the many small fires ignited could suck away oxygen needed by any entombed survivors.
Morgues running out of space
At the city’s main Central University Hospital’s morgue, funeral services director Ferdinand Malembo Milandou said on national television that they had run out of space.
“We’ve been forced to place two bodies in each rack,” he said from the morgue that has the capacity to hold 126 corpses.
National radio reported that the morgue was holding 236 bodies.
That did not appear to include 70 bodies at the morgue of the capital’s military hospital, reported on Sunday by a doctor who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press. He added those corpses would bring the toll to more than 300 dead.
Tuesday morning state television broadcast the first images from the off-limits disaster zone, indicating all buildings within a half-kilometre of the military camp of a tank regiment were completely flattened by the explosions, including three schools and two churches where dozens were praying.
National TV also showed images of earth-moving equipment removing rubble and several ambulances being filled with newly discovered corpses.
“It’s like a tsunami without water,” Security Minister Raymond Zephirin Mboulou said on TV as he conducted an inspection with other Cabinet members.
Effects felt as far as the DRC
Sunday’s shockwaves shattered windows 10 kilometres away across the Congo River in downtown Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Central African nation of Congo.
Government spokesperson Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short circuit for the fire that set off the blasts. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso described the ordeal as “a tragic accident”. The defence minister rushed to reassure people that the fire was not a sign of a coup or a mutiny in the country that suffered a civil war in 1997.
Hundreds of people milled around the grounds of the main hospital, awaiting news of the wounded who overflowed wards.
Congo’s director general of health, Professor Elira Dokekias, said that the capitals’ hospitals were treating 1 340 injured people and that 60 were awaiting urgent operations.
Delphin Kibakidi, spokesperson of the local Red Cross, said people were emerging from the scene of the disaster with “unbearable wounds”, such as amputated legs and arms and organs falling out.
Aid finally arrives
Medical teams from former coloniser France, Italy, Morocco, Sao Tome and Principe and neighbouring DRC arrived on Monday and Tuesday to help, Dokekias said.
The Moroccan military doctors brought a field hospital and French doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières also brought medical supplies. France sent 2.5 tons of medication, an amount matched by the United Nation’s World Health Organisation.
But there remains an urgent need for psychologists, Dokekias said.
“We urgently need someone to take charge of the psychological needs because there are many, many traumatised patients,” he said.
Meanwhile, he added, “We are still receiving more wounded, and we expect that there will be more dead when rescuers can get to the debris.”
National television was broadcasting photographs of the dozens of children found wandering the streets alone.
Parents look for their children
Municipal worker Marie Engouere said she had gone to the TV station along with about 100 other parents who have not been able to find their children among those shown on television. She said she was at work on Sunday and her five-year-old American son Emmanuel was at their home neighbouring the garrison. That area was razed in the blast.
“People say they saw one of the neighbours saving my son, but up to now no one has brought him to me,” she cried.
In one joyful reunion amid the disaster, Laurette Ngoy found her 3-month-old baby on Monday.
“I was bathing the baby when suddenly I heard this huge explosion and ran out into the street in a panic, totally naked,” she said.
She handed the child to a neighbour and returned to her home to collect clothes when a second blast exploded. The neighbour fled with the baby.
“This has been the very worst day that I’ll never forget in my life,” she said of her wanderings for nearly 24 hours trying to find her child. On Tuesday, she finally ran into the neighbour, still clutching her baby.
Marian Ambeto was struck on the head by debris from an exploding shell. “I never could have imagined that in an instant, buildings in front of me could cave in like a cardboard carton,” said the 32-year-old. “It was like the films we watch on television.”
Kibakidi said the Red Cross has set up four camps in churches holding some 3 000 refugees.
“It is estimated that thousands have effectively been displaced and lost their homes. Several schools were also destroyed by the blasts,” said a US Embassy statement reporting on a meeting of foreign ambassadors with government officials on Monday. It said the US, other embassies and non-governmental organisations were working with the government on how best to deliver aid.
Among the dead were six employees of a Chinese construction firm which had 140 Chinese workers at its construction site when the first blast happened, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Dozens were injured. — Sapa