A grieving girl mourns over the bodies of her loved ones as they are removed from the wreckage of the wreckage of the Chevron ship heading to Algeria. MOHAMMED ABDELALKHAN / EPA file
There were conflicting reports Thursday from Sierra Leone as to how much the death toll in a refinery explosion had risen in the west African nation.
Authorities in the impoverished country initially said the blast killed 20. But the Ministry of Public Affairs later announced in a statement it had risen to 115.
The ExxonMobil-operated berthing facility in the capital, Freetown, was damaged in the blast, which set a tanker ablaze and caused a fire that tore through at least seven floors of the five-story building, engulfed dozens of cars parked below and injured more than 200 others.
“A truck filled with gasoline triggered a huge explosion in the Chevron building in Farmiloe neighborhood, where about 15 people are confirmed dead and five critically injured,” said Robin Campbell, media manager of the medical services in Freetown.
The truck driver was killed, including a four-month-old baby, as well as an off-duty policeman who was also on the truck.
Also killed in the explosion was a couple, having just left a hospital where they had spent time for treatment on ill children, Campbell said.
“The fire was spread to the attached building, including the nursery and school,” the statement said. “It destroyed some 150 vehicles including parked vehicles that belong to the Police Force of Sierra Leone and other organization. It also set fire to a large area of disused warehouses used as shops and dwellings by miscreants.”
The U.S. State Department said late Wednesday that “we have every confidence in the ability of the Sierra Leonean authorities to investigate this terrible incident,” spokesman Gerrit Wiesbo told reporters.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” he said.
The fire caused a stampede that left six people dead, the Associated Press reported. Some doctors at a hospital in Freetown treated the injured without electricity in their intensive care units because the fire destroyed transformers, AP reported.
The tanker fire had been brought under control by late Wednesday, though it remained unclear how many of the other dead were still inside the burning tanker.
The head of the ExxonMobil Sierra Leone, Charles Stansberry, had been ordered by the company’s CEO to return to the West African nation, where he has worked for years, the company said.
Accommodation at the compound had been provided for Stansberry and seven other Americans and other workers, both within and outside the compound, ExxonMobil said. It wasn’t clear if any remained at the compound Thursday morning.
It wasn’t immediately clear if other Americans had been working at the site. The State Department and ExxonMobil would not say how many Americans were in Sierra Leone.
— Contributed by The Associated Press