Asia

Pakistan inferno: Father's anguish as tanker dead buried

A member of an Anti Terrorist Squad (C) takes images of a burst and burnt out Oil tanker (R background) at the site of an accident on the outskirts of Bahawalpur, Pakistan, 25 June 2017. Image copyright EPA
Image caption The blaze left a trail of charred vehicles on the road around the tanker

A mass burial has been held in Pakistan for 125 unidentified victims of Sunday's fuel tanker inferno in the southern province of Punjab.

The blaze killed more than 150 people and came just a day before the religious festival of Eid.

Muhammad Hayat, 36, has been looking for his family ever since the disaster near the city of Ahmedpur East.

His wife and two children had gone with other relatives to the site of the stricken tanker.

It's not clear what started the fire.

Image caption Muhammad Hayat has all but given up hope of ever finding his wife and son

The lorry overturned some 2km (about 1.5 miles) from their home in Basti Daad Potra, one of the many small rural settlements along the local highway.

None of Muhammad Hayat's family returned that day.

His 30-year-old wife, 13-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son had been with his younger brother and wife.

Looking for his loved ones, he first went to the two hospitals in Bahawalpur about 45km away, hoping he would find them among the injured. They weren't there.

"My heart sank. They [hospital staff] told me there were more than 100 dead who couldn't be identified," he told the BBC.

In fact 125 people were burnt beyond recognition. Only 24 of the dead have been identified and handed over to their families so far.

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Media captionPeople smoking at the scene may have sparked the fire

Soon after the raging blaze was put out, bodies were shifted to the Bahawal Victoria Hospital in Bahawalpur. Most of the more than 100 injured were also taken there as well as to the Combined Military Hospital in Bahawalpur.

From there, 59 more critical patients were airlifted to the Pak Italian Modern Burn Centre Multan, the only burn centre in this corner of Punjab, more than 100km from the accident site.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some fire victims were brought to the Nishtar hospital in Multan

Muhammad Hayat was advised to visit Multan's burn centre and set off on the two-hour journey the same night. He found his daughter there.

Though conscious, she couldn't tell him much about the others and he had nowhere else left to go.

His worst fears, half-confirmed since leaving for Multan, were now becoming a certainty.

He relayed the news back home where his mother Zahura Bibi, 66, fainted.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Police say many locals had gathered to collect fuel leaking from the crashed tanker when it caught fire

Next day was Eid. Muhammad returned home, alone. His daughter remains in hospital.

News had already spread out in this closely-knit society of small villages on both sides of the highway. Soon after Eid prayers, mourners started arriving at the family's small mud house.

He was not the only one mourning. Many others in his village, and those around, had similar stories to tell. Some homes had more than four members missing, including children.

"It was difficult to determine how many children were among the dead. However, a large number of injured who were shifted to different hospitals were children," Dr Tahira Parveen, medical superintendent at Bahawal Victoria Hospital, told the BBC.

Like more than a hundred others, Muhammad has submitted his DNA samples at the hospital.

"They told me they would match it with unidentified bodies and if they find my wife and son they will call. If it doesn't match, they said, they were sorry," he says, drying his eyes with a cloth wrapped around his neck.

He seems to have already reconciled himself with his worst fears. But he is angry too. "Where were the police? Why did they not come when the tanker overturned and stop people from going near the leaking fuel?"

DNA test results normally take 14 days, says Dr Parveen.

Tuesday's mass burials are intended to be temporary, while relatives wait to see if they succeed in a DNA match with those who perished.

It is going to be a long, painful two weeks for Muhammad Hayat and eighty other families in this small rural area in Ahmedpur East.

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