Scores more were injured in the blast, the latest tragedy to hit a country that has been rocked by political violence, natural disasters, poverty and hunger.
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Harold Isaac and
CAP-HAÏTIEN, Haiti — More than 60 people were killed and scores more were wounded early Tuesday when a truck carrying gasoline exploded in northern Haiti, officials said.
The truck, carrying some 9,000 gallons of fuel, swerved and toppled over in a residential area of the city of Cap-Haïtien, according to local officials and witnesses. A crowd then gathered to siphon off its gas before the truck exploded around midnight, scorching everything in a 100-yard radius, said Frandy Jean, the head of firefighters for northern Haiti.
“It’s the first time since I’ve been a firefighter, in over 17 years, that I have lived such a catastrophe,” Mr. Jean, 49, said.
The accident is the latest tragedy to befall Haiti this year, with the country still reeling from the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Since then, the Caribbean nation has been struck by a deadly earthquake, severe flooding and a spree of kidnappings perpetrated by the country’s increasingly powerful criminal gangs.
Haiti’s electrical grid is unreliable, so much of the country — including banks, hospitals and businesses — relies on generators for power. But the gangs that control access to fuel terminals have blocked deliveries over the past few months, leaving Haitians with severe shortages.
Desperate for fuel, witnesses said that some in Cap-Haïtien were willing to risk approaching the downed truck on Tuesday to collect gas.
Beyond the dozens of dead, hundreds were also injured in the explosion, the mayor’s office said on Twitter.
“I am distraught at the tragedy affecting our city,” Mayor Yvrose Pierre said on Twitter. “All my thoughts are with the victims and all their loved ones in these tragic times.”
Patrick Almonor, the city’s deputy mayor, said that around 20 houses in the area were set on fire by the explosion and that initial reports of casualties did not include those who may have died inside their homes, local media reported.
In videos and photos shared on social media, flames could be seen erupting and black smoke billowing into the air above what appeared to be the charred carcass of a truck. Footage from the aftermath showed buildings blackened by the blast, with more than a dozen bodies covered in white sheets strewn on the ground among the twisted remains of scorched vehicles.
Hours after the initial explosion, hundreds of bystanders still stood in shock around the fuming remnants of the toppled truck, trying to make sense of what had happened, even as workers began dismantling the burned wreckage.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry, writing on Twitter, said medical teams had been dispatched to the site, and declared three days of mourning. Mr. Henry also traveled to Cap-Haïtien on Tuesday afternoon, where he met with victims.
“It’s a drama of misery,” Mr. Henry said at a news conference. “Some people died in their home without understanding what happened.”
The two major hospitals in the area were both overwhelmed by dozens of people needing care, officials said, and were asking for help from other hospitals and the public because they lacked even the most basic supplies, such as sheets, to attend the wounded.
At the Justinien University Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, a handful of burn victims, some with severe injuries, were still out in the yard because there was no room for them inside the facility.
“The state is guilty in what happened,” said Jhonky Joseph, 22, a student who lost some of his classmates in the fire and was standing outside. “Where there is no state, you will see these kind of things.”
The injured also included those who were trampled as people fled the scene, according to officials. Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that it had dispatched a medical team to Cap-Haïtien, where six patients were airlifted to Port-au-Prince and admitted to the organization’s hospital. Haiti’s Civil Protection service said some 15 people had been evacuated by air and taken to specialized medical centers.
Haiti’s health and emergency services, long in a state of disrepair, have been battered by the recent cascade of tragedies, including a devastating earthquake and flash floods, disasters that left over 2,000 dead and many more injured and displaced.
The natural disasters have been compounded by poverty, hunger and increasing violence.
In recent months, the severe fuel shortage pushed the nation even deeper into collapse. Gangs, not the government, now control large areas of the country, and they have taken advantage of the need for fuel, hijacking gas trucks at will and blocking deliveries. Many truck drivers refused to work in October, in a nationwide strike that paralyzed the country.
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, gangs have become increasingly brazen, kidnapping people en masse and targeting everyone from school children to local religious leaders.
In October, 17 people associated with an American Christian aid group were kidnapped, including several children, after visiting an orphanage. Only five have been freed so far. The gang that detained the hostages, called 400 Mawozo, initially demanded a ransom of $17 million for their release.
Former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who briefly took control of Haiti’s government immediately after the president’s assassination, said he was heartbroken by the news of the explosion.
“I share the pain and sorrow of all the people,” he wrote on Twitter.
Harold Isaac reported from Cap-Haïtien and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City. Marc Santora contributed reporting from London.