When Amatu Turay’s 21-year-old son saw a truck collide with a fuel tanker, he ran straight home to empty out his mother’s water cans. “He said he was going to find money,” she recalled. Too late, she realised what he planned to do: fill them with the leaking fuel in the hope of selling it – a litre of petrol could fetch roughly 10,000 leones (79 cents).
Friday night turned to disaster in Wellington, eastern Freetown after the tanker involved in the crash exploded and a subsequent fire burnt up the surrounding area, killing at least 101 people. Witnesses described dozens of injured victims attempting to flee in the aftermath, some still burning, their skin hanging from them. Others were trapped in minibuses, unable to get out.
“It was just a normal day of work,” said Fulica Masaquoi, who lived close by in Sierra Leone’s capital with 16 of her family, including five children, before their home burnt down on Friday. “We were all outside waiting for customers to come in. This tanker wanted to take a U-turn to go this way but a truck came and hit the tanker. Youths came in, they started fetching the fuel, running with it, running up and down.”
She went into the back of the house to use an asthma inhaler. “That was when my brother shouted ‘the tanker is on fire’.” She said her family escaped out the back window of their home, then watched their home being engulfed by flames.
An 18-year-old she knew sped down the road looking for help. “The fire was all over him. There was no way to put it out. Nobody could help because his flesh was falling off. Everybody was running away.”
In Masaquoi’s telling, fire fighters came twice and left, overwhelmed by the size of the blaze, before they returned a third time with two fire trucks. “By then . . . there was nothing left,” she said, speaking in the ruins of her home the day after the explosion.
“We don’t know what to do right now. We have no clothes, nowhere to go so we are just sitting,” she said.
Nearby, a crowd stood around staring at what they said was charred human flesh. There were at least 14 burnt-out cars, two minibuses and a keke taxi still on the scene by Saturday afternoon, while 42 motorbikes had been removed, many of which belonged to the dead, according to government officials.
At the side of the road, young men scavenged for scrap metal to sell. Around them, some of the ground was still smoking.
Among Friday’s victims were a number of female traders, who sold soft drinks and other small goods at the side of the usually-busy road. Mohammed Tulley’s wife, Adama Mansaray, was among them. He was working in the city when he got a call to say the place she did business was on fire. The next day, he went to five different hospitals but couldn’t find her. Next, Tulley went to the city morgue, but officials said to return on Monday. “Some people were burned to ash,” he had heard.
Tulley is worried about his three children, who are 13, 7 and 4 years old, and may now grow up without a mother. “I’m weeping deeply from my heart,” he said.
Alie Bangura is still angry. He says his 17-year-old son was not taken to hospital in an ambulance. “I was working and then I heard my child was burnt. I came.” The teenager recognised him, shouting “father”, he said.
“Then we asked an ambulance to take him to hospital but the ambulance staff said he’s not going to make it.” The teenager died at 5am. “My son took care of me,” he said. “I’m old. This is a big loss.”
Outside the gates of Connaught Hospital, central Freetown, on Sunday, victims’ names were taped up on sheets of paper.
Around 55 victims are still being treated, but relatives and friends said they are being denied access to them. At the hospital gates, a crowd of young men were blocked from entering by an armed policeman. They said an unknown person had called them to say their friend was alive and might be there, so they rushed over. “We had already started mourning,” one said. But Umar Sesay wasn’t on the list of patients.
In a compound inside, dozens more relatives had gathered. One man said he waited overnight to see his son, but hadn’t been allowed inside the wards yet and had received no information about his child’s condition.
Some 6km southwest, dozens of relatives sat outside the 34 Military Hospital, complaining they were not allowed to enter. Seven victims had already died there, while at least 20 are still being treated.
In the hospital compound, the building that housed Covid-19 patients during a surge caused by the Delta wave in June has been turned into an emergency unit. Nurses bustled around, while one burn patient sat up drinking a bottle of water.
Medics said they are focused on stabilisation – victims have burns covering up to 95 per cent of their bodies. “It is about keeping them alive,” said colonel doctor Stephen Sevalie. The hospital has enough medical supplies for just 48 hours; Sevalie said they are hoping donations will arrive after that to cover things like IV fluids and painkillers.
Many victims remain in a confused state with severe pain, he said, but everyone had managed to give basic information, like their names and addresses, which will help their families find them. Only one relative is being allowed to enter per person, he said. “We don’t want a crowd.”
While there have been big fires in Freetown before, the scale of injury here is unprecedented, Sevalie said, but “we are used to dealing with shocks”.
Over the last decade they’ve operated through the West African Ebola outbreak; a 2017 mudslide that killed more than 1,100 people; floods; and more recently Covid-19, listed Sevalie. “We’re in a disaster-prone environment, anything can happen,” he said. “The key is adaptation as the situation unfolds.”