The blast in the port city some 124 miles north of Port-au-Prince caused extensive damage and left poorly resourced first responders struggling to respond. Officials said the death toll will probably rise as the extent of the damage becomes clearer, though an earlier report of hundreds injured was revised. They issued urgent appeals for medical aid.

Images from Cap-Haïtien showed bright red-and-orange flames licking at buildings in the dark night, the blackened facades of the city’s homes, roofs partially blown off and the mangled remains of the overturned truck.

“Three days of national mourning will be decreed throughout the territory, in memory of the victims of this tragedy that the entire Haitian nation is grieving,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry, a physician, said in a tweet. “Field hospitals will be quickly deployed in Cap-Haïtien to provide the necessary care to the victims of this terrible explosion.”

He traveled Tuesday to the coastal city with other government officials and doctors.

“I am dismayed by the tragedy affecting our city,” tweeted Yvrose Pierre, one of Cap-Haïtien’s three mayors.

Nelson Deshommes, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said he visited the scene of the explosion early Tuesday morning. First responders were removing corpses, including many burned beyond the point of recognition, he said, putting some into body bags and piling others onto trucks.

“I could not stay,” Deshommes said. “It’s too difficult for me to see what’s going on.”

A lament for Haiti: ‘It is as if we are cursed’

Patrick Almonor, another mayor, said the truck carrying gasoline tipped over shortly after midnight, spilling the fuel into a ditch. The country has struggled under gas shortages, and the government recently removed part of a subsidy on fuel, making it more expensive. As locals crowded around to collect the spilled fuel in containers, he said, the truck exploded. Firefighters arrived with 1,500 gallons of water but could not extinguish the flames. They called for aid from airport firefighters.

Almonor said it appeared to be an accident. At least 40 homes were burned.

“We have critical needs to take care of the burned people and clean the area,” he said.

Alain Durosiers, chief of fire operations for the mayor’s office, said the blaze was difficult to contain in part because of a dearth of resources. His unit of nine people has only one firetruck. Once its water supply ran out, the fire quickly grew again, causing more damage to people and property.

“We have that much destruction because of a lack of proper equipment,” Durosiers said. “It was a savage fire.”

The explosion is only the latest tragedy to strike Haiti this year.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is being led by an interim government after its president was assassinated in July. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake the next month killed more than 2,000 people and injured scores more. Powerful gangs have stepped in to fill a leadership vacuum, kidnapping Haitians from all walks of life and worsening insecurity.

Abductions by the busload: Haitians are being held hostage by a surge in kidnappings

In recent months, the country has been virtually paralyzed by a fuel shortage that hit hospitals and schools, which rely on generators powered by gasoline or diesel for electricity. Businesses were forced to close and transportation workers took part in a nationwide strike to protest.

Officials blamed the crisis in part on the growing power of gangs. Many had hijacked fuel trucks and kidnapped their drivers for ransom or blocked fuel distribution at ports in an attempt to get Henry to resign.

Romann Daniel, who lives near the scene of the blast, said the driver of the truck had warned the gathering crowd that the truck could explode at any time and urged them to run away. But given the fuel shortages, few heeded his exhortations.

“A lot of people lost their lives because they wanted to take the gas,” said Daniel, 38. He was searching local hospitals for a missing cousin. “The dead people are unrecognizable. It’s impossible to identify them.”

Agée Fils-Aimé was awakened after midnight by a “big boom.” She went out of her home to find the truck toppled over on its side. When the fire started, she and her family, including a 9-year-old daughter, fled on foot.

“The ground was hot,” said Fils-Aimé, 61. “We could not put our feet on it.”

Durosiers, the fire chief, said that it took as many as five hours for an ambulance to arrive.

“Even if they came earlier, they would not have been able to do much, to be honest,” he said. “The fire was so huge.”

Deshommes said the largest hospital in Cap-Haïtien is no longer operating after it was attacked by armed bandits in November, so victims from the explosion have been sent to other facilities, which lack critical resources. Local media outlets reported that some victims were being cared for in the courtyard of one hospital.

“I did not see an ambulance on-site to take care of burned people,” Deshommes said. “I did not see living burned people, either.”

Source: Washington Post, 2021 (