Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version to clarify the sequence of events that occurred after the truck overturned.
CAP-HAITIEN — A loud bang awoke John Eugène in the early morning hours of Dec. 14 from his home in the mountainous Zone Labory area of Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city. It was soon followed by another bang and neighbors yelling “Anmwe, anmwe” in apparent distress.
When Eugène, 35, rushed outside his home, he saw a fire spreading in Rond-Point Samari, an area located at the entrance of Cap-Haitien. As he recorded a video on his phone, he couldn’t help but think about all the people who had surely perished in the blaze. Hours later, Eugène found out that a childhood friend and the friend’s mother, father and two siblings were among the dead.
“They burned inside their home,” he said softly. “It hurts a lot. They were like family to me. Look at how the country is already struggling, and at the end of the year so many people suffered this ugly death.”
Authorities have reported at least 59 deaths so far, with dozens more severely injured, Cap-Haitien’s Deputy Mayor Patrick Almonor told CNN.
The fiery incident occurred after a fuel tanker flipped on its side to avoid hitting a motorcycle. While on its side, residents began filling up containers with gas, despite the driver’s warnings to stay away from the truck. Some people also banged on the truck to get more gas, Cap-Haitien’s Deputy Mayor Patrick Almonor told Sakapfet Okap.
“Then, it exploded,” Almonor said. “That’s what caused the drama. The truck driver told the people not to get close to the truck. But since it’s gas, a lot of people went near it.”
Gas has not been available for a few days in the city, residents said, part of an ongoing gas shortage Haiti has been experiencing all year long. With residents in desperate need of fuel, according to local reports, many have been gathering gas illegally for personal use or to sell on the black market, authorities said.
The country needs to implement an educational campaign to warn people about the dangers of illegally collecting fuel, Almonor said.
The injured were transported to Justinien University Hospital and Haiti’s Baptist Convention Hospital. Both are in dire need of gas, IV bags and other medical supplies, according to Le Nouvelliste.
Temporary hospitals will be erected throughout Cap-Haitien. Prime Minister Ariel Henry tweeted that he and a team of health workers and rescuers traveled to the city. He also declared a three-day period of mourning.
“I will take this opportunity to express my solidarity with the grieving families,” Henry said.
Accidents blamed on motorcycle drivers have become an issue Cap-Haitien officials have long been trying to tackle, they said.
The city planned to create dedicated motorcycle lanes in 2018, but have been hindered by insecurity and the pandemic.
Meanwhile, as residents begin to mourn the loss of family and friends, they blame the government for the tragedy.
“People are not educated and because of the government, gas means business in [the black market],” Eugène said. “Everybody ran to go get gas. They didn’t think about the danger.”
Throughout the fuel shortage, motorcycle drivers and the transportation industry have frequently protested. In September, the shortage worsened when street gangs blocked access to the seaports where the fuel shipments come in and are stored. The move caused businesses, schools, hospitals and other institutions to shut down throughout October and November because they did not have fuel to keep electrical systems running nor for transportation.
Earlier this week, another explosion occurred when a fuel tanker being stored inside a warehouse in Trou-du-Nord caught on fire, leaving one person dead and roughly a dozen injured. It is unclear what caused that explosion.