Death toll from fuel tanker explosion rises to 115 in Sierra Leone

Authorities struggle to cope as relatives of the dead and injured vie for assistance

Four days after a fuel tanker explosion killed more than 100 people, posters with photographs of the dead and missing marked the site of the tragedy on Tuesday in eastern Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The death toll has risen to at least 115, according to the National Disaster Management Agency. Officials expect it to rise further.

On the main road running through the explosion site, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has set up a temporary station where people missing loved ones can file a report. On Tuesday, six new people were registered, according to Chernor M Barrie, a volunteer who came out of retirement to help in the search.

He believed not all family members of the dead knew their fates.


“Many know their relatives are missing, but maybe they’ve gone somewhere else,” he said.

In a sign of the extreme poverty facing locals, in a country with one of the poorest populations on earth, Chernor said there were concerns about people falsely claiming their relatives had died in hope of securing some aid or payout.

“They want to benefit from whatever benefit is coming,” he said.

Each person registering fills out a form with details about their loved one, including their address, occupation, number of dependents, bike or vehicle number if applicable, and the date they were last seen.

“We are triangulating information,” he said.

Mohammed Tulley, whom The Irish Times interviewed on Saturday after he travelled to five hospitals searching for his wife, Adama Mansaray, said he was now certain she was dead.

He said he was was refused entry to the city mortuary, so did not know if his wife’s body was identifiable. He attended Monday’s mass burial of victims, travelling in a government-hired bus.

Tulley, who works as an motorbike taxi driver, said he would struggle to care for his three girls alone. The elder two know what has happened to their mother, but the youngest, a four-year-old, doesn’t fully understand, he said.

His injured nephew, aged 12, was still in hospital. Tulley took out his phone to display photographs of the burns covering the boy’s legs and arms.

“I need any kind of help,” he said. “I have to go to work [every day], take care of the children] before leaving, they are all in school.”

He described his wife – a trader and hairdresser – as a “really good mother and a good wife”.

“We had no problems,” he said.

In her house in the neighbourhood, Khadija Barrie (28) pulled out posters from a bag of her husband and younger brother, who were both killed in the explosion. Khadija managed to identify the body of her brother, who died in hospital, but not her husband. Asked how she felt about the mass burial, which she attended, she replied: “The government tried.”

Collecting fuel

Khadija cares for two children – including a one-year-old. Her husband, a motorbike driver, brought home around 800,000 leones (€63) a month– money she now has to go without. “I definitely need help,” she said.

Khadija’s husband was one of those who rushed towards the leaking fuel tanker after it had been struck by a truck, before the blast. She called him on the phone, asking should she cook for him, but he said not to worry – he was busy collecting fuel and would be back late. That was the last time they spoke.

Some locals said they were starting to tire of people asking them questions. Mohamed Lamin Mansaray (35), whose home and bar were destroyed, said many officials had come but there has been no solid assistance.

“It’s all about the facts and the facts are [that there has been] no help yet,” he complained.

His building was home to 16 people, including five children. Mansaray now sleeps in a friend’s house, while relatives donate rice so his family can eat.

“Everyone finds a place to sleep themselves,” he said.

His two-year-old bar, Melo Mans Entertainment, hosted as many as 150 people a night, he said. Now it was ruined.

“I lost all my business. I just bought a brand new disco machine, a lot of drinks,” he said. “I lost one of my workers. We need help.”

One of the largest groups of victims was okada motorbike drivers, who move around the city transporting passengers or goods. In his office, Umaru Talie Bah, the president of the Sierra Leone Commercial Bike Riders Association, said the loss was huge: "A lot of life and property."

He said it made sense that motorbike drivers rushed to collect the leaking fuel on the night of the disaster – which sealed their fate as victims.

The majority operate on rented bikes, and they must pay for petrol themselves, meaning they take home only between 10,000 and 20,000 leones (79c and €1.58 ) a day. A litre of petrol is worth 10,000 leones.

“The government need to sensitise people not to take fuel, [to know] when you see this type of incident you [should] go away,” he said.

But the problem is bigger, relating to poverty and the desperation to make a bit of extra money for their families.

“They thought it is a good opportunity,” Bah said.