The death toll from an oil tanker fire in Pakistan has risen to 153, with dozens more in a critical condition, and the fatalities are expected to increase.
The disaster happened when scores of people from a village raced with jerry cans to the spot nearby where the vehicle had overturned to collect the leaking fuel.
The crowd screamed as the flames engulfed them, said Saznoor Ahmad, 30, whose two cousins were killed in the fire.
Most of the victims, who were taken to Bahawalpur’s Victoria Hospital in south Punjab, suffered up to 80% burns.
The hospital declared a state of emergency, called in extra doctors and nurses, and formed a team to handle the emergency within 15 minutes of the fire.
Men, women and children were among the dead, many of whom will have to be identified through DNA testing as they were burned beyond recognition, said Dr Mohammad Baqar, a senior rescue official in the area.
“The fire moved so fast,” said Mr Ahmad.
Local TV showed black smoke billowing skyward, scores of burned bodies, rescue officials speeding the injured to hospital and army helicopters ferrying the wounded.
The area was strewn with bodies when the flames subsided and about 30 motorcycles that carried villagers to the site lay charred nearby and eight other vehicles were destroyed, said eyewitnesses.
Residents wandered through the area looking for loved ones as the wounded cried out for help.
Twenty-two patients were transferred by air from Victoria Hospital to hospitals in the provincial capital, Lahore, after being stabilised, and some of the most badly burned were evacuated by army helicopters to Multan, about 60 miles away.
A loudspeaker atop a local mosque had alerted villagers to the leak from the tanker and called on the remaining villagers to help put the fire out after it erupted.
Highway police moved quickly to redirect traffic but could not stop those who raced to collect the fuel, said a spokesman.
Mohammed Salim ran toward the smoke carrying buckets of water and sand but said the heat was too intense to reach those in need.
“I could hear people screaming but I couldn’t get to them,” he said.
Abdul Malik, a local police officer also among the first to arrive, described a “horrible scene,” adding: “I have never seen anything like it in my life. Victims trapped in the fireball. They were screaming for help.”
He said that when the fire subsided, “we saw bodies everywhere, so many were just skeletons. The people who were alive were in really bad shape.”
The tanker was driving from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital, when the driver lost control and crashed on the national highway outside Bahawalpur.
Zulkha Bibi, who was searching for her two sons, was among residents wandering through the area looking for loved ones as the wounded cried out for help.
“Someone should tell me about my beloved sons, where are they? Are they alive or are they no longer in this world? Please tell me,” she pleaded.
The disaster happened on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
While Saudi Arabia and most other Muslim countries celebrated the holiday Sunday, Pakistanis will mark it on Monday.