Gas explosion in Haiti claims at least 77 lives

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The remains of some of those killed in the gasoline explosion in Cap-Haitien lie on the street.

The death toll from a gasoline tanker explosion in Haiti’s second-largest city continued to mount Wednesday after one hospital registered two overnight deaths and the leading disaster coordinator for the northern region confirmed 75 casualties.

Jean Henri Petit, who heads the Office of Civil Protection for the North region, which includes the city of Cap-Haïtien, said his partial death count of 75 was being sent to both local authorities and others in Port-au-Prince. It includes a previous count of 66 as well as others that his team found had died as a result of the explosion.

“There are people who did not make it to the hospital who died,” Petit told the Miami Herald. “There is a possibility that more could die.”

At least two of those possibilities became a reality when Sainte Thérèse de Hinche Hospital reported the deaths of two burn victims overnight. The hospital is part of a network operated by Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian non-governmental organization that operates the University Hospital of Mirebalais. The two deaths were among nine patients who had been evacuated to Hinche because of their burns, a Zanmi Lasante spokesperson said.

Those medical evacuations continued Wednesday as Haitian authorities prepared to set up a field hospital in the city to help relieve the stress on the city’s largest public medical facility, Justinien University Hospital.

The tanker explosion occurred shortly after midnight Monday in the Semarie district at the eastern entrance of Cap-Haïtien. The tanker was in the La Fossette neighborhood and was trying to avoid hitting a motorcycle and overturned.

After the accident, onlookers went to the scene and began scooping up the fuel in buckets and containers, several people reported. But it’s still unclear what led to the blast. Some have suggested that the fuel spilled into a smoldering heap of trash, while others said it occurred because of the pillaging of the tanker.

“Up until now, I still don’t have the real cause of the accident,” said Petit. “No one has been able to find the driver in order to learn how he lost control of the tanker.”

The driver, he said, survived the blast.

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Bandaged victims of a fuel tanker explosion in Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien, crowded the floor of the largest public hospital Justinien University Hospital on Tuesday, December 14, 2021 as doctors and nurses faced a shortage of supplies, Office of the Prime Minister

Jerry Chandler, the head of the Office of Civil Protection for the country, said his team of disaster responders were making the rounds at local hospitals to update the number of deaths as well as injuries, which numbered more than 40.

Chandler said a damage assessment is also ongoing to determine how many homes and businesses were engulfed by the flames, which have left families who already had little with even less. One of the city’s deputy mayors, Patrick Almonor, said they had registered at least 42 homes gutted by the fire.

But the biggest worry is the people who survived but were burned by the blast.

“Our biggest concern is that a lot of those who were burned are in serious condition, and we could have more deaths in the coming days,” Dr. Laure Adrien, director general of the health ministry, told the Herald.

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Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry visits victims of fuel tanker explosion at Justinien University Hospital on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. The explosion has claimed at least 66 lives and injured dozens. Office of the Prime Minister

This was evident Tuesday as the physician joined Interim Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is also a doctor, in touring Justinien University Hospital. Bandaged victims crowded the floor of the hospital as doctors and nurses faced a shortage of supplies, and a scene of panic unfolded in the courtyard among dismayed family members. The city’s hospitals have been overwhelmed by the tragedy and are treating many of the injured people in courtyards due to a lack of hospital beds.

“I am sad and overwhelmed by this tragedy,” Henry told the Herald afterward. “This considerable loss of human life and all this pain is the result of people living in misery and in a precarious situation. The lack of education has resulted in people exposing themselves to danger.”

On Wednesday, the Port-au-Prince human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere (Eyes Wide Open) blamed the tragedy on the state, accusing it of negligence and showing casualness in the management of its public affairs for several years. It has enforced a policy of “legal banditry,” spokeswoman Marie Yolene Gilles said, as a method of governance. The state, she added, has failed in its obligation to protect the right to life.

The human rights group called on the government, which plans to bury the victims in a national funeral, to make reparations to the victims of the tragedy and their families. It also called on the government to properly identify all of the charred bodies before buying them, notify relatives of the deceased and rebuild the neighborhoods greatly impacted by the explosion using modern construction standards.

Gilles also wants the government to “determine the causes of the accident and explosion and punish those responsible.”

The gas explosion is the latest catastrophe to hit Haiti, which since the July 7 assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse, has moved from one crisis to another. Five weeks after the president’s still unsolved murder, the southern peninsula was hit by a deadly 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing at least 2,248 people and injuring 12,763.

Thousands of Haitians, displaced from their homes at the southern entrance of Port-au-Prince by warring gangs, continue to be homeless. Gangs have also aggravated an ongoing fuel crisis by blocking tanker access to the two ports in the capital where deliveries are made. The country is also seeing a surge in for-ransom kidnappings that in October led to the abductions of 17 missionaries from a U.S.-based religious charity, Christian Aid Ministries. Two months later, 12 remain in captivity after five were released by their captors, a violent Haitian gang named 400 Mawozo.

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Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is also a doctor, toured Justinien University Hospital on Tuesday, December 14, 2021 to visit victims of a gas tanker explosion in Cap-Haitien. Bandaged victims crowded the floor of the hospital as doctors and nurses faced a shortage of supplies, Office of the Prime Minister

Reflecting on all of the challenges, Monsignor Launay Saturné of the Archdiocese of Cap-Haïtien called on Haitians to pray over the next three days beginning Thursday. Haiti’s government has announced a three-day national mourning period Wednesday through Friday in honor of the victims. Flags will be flown half-staff and no clubs will be allowed to operate.

“This situation brings great distress and tears to many families who are already living in dire straits. Oh dear, when will this people cease to suffer?” Saturné said in a statement. “We need to look at the dire situation we are living in today to make the right decisions, especially to educate our people about how to deal with such situations. …

“We hope that the wounded will be given proper care, that the dead will be buried with dignity and that proper cleansing will be done in this area to protect the health of the living.”

This story was originally published December 15, 2021 9:52 AM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.