Congo armoury fire toll rises to 236

Morticians stacked bodies two to a tray at Brazzaville's main morgue Tuesday as the death toll rose to at least 236 from a large fire on Sunday at an armoury that catapulted shells, rockets and other munitions into a densely populated area of the capital of the Republic of Congo.

Rescue efforts still hampered more than 48 hours after blasts

Injured people are treated by health workers at a hospital after multiple explosions occurred at a munitions depot in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on March 4, 2012. (Elie Mbena/Associated Press)

Morticians stacked bodies two to a tray at Brazzaville's main morgue Tuesday as the death toll rose to at least 236 from a large fire at an armoury that catapulted shells, rockets and other munitions into a densely populated area of the capital of the Republic of Congo.

Police said international firefighters had brought the main blaze under control by Tuesday morning, and prevented it spreading to a second munitions depot about 90 meters away. The second depot contains even heavier-calibre weapons, including Stalin's Organ multiple rocket launchers, a military source said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

It still was unclear whether rescue efforts could start in earnest Tuesday, more than 48 hours after the blasts. The military source said there were plans for the controlled destruction of the munitions in the second depot, which likely will delay any attempts to dig into the rubble to find possible survivors or bodies.

There are fears that undetonated munitions have been catapulted kilometres away by the blasts, and that the many small fires ignited could suck away oxygen needed by any entombed survivors.

Piles of debris are all that remain at the site of the St. Louis Catholic church, which collapsed a day earlier following explosions at an adjacent munitions depot in Brazzaville. (Elie Mbena/Associated Press)

Morgue out of space

At the morgue of the city's main Central University Hospital, funeral services director Ferdinand Malembo Milandou said on national television that they had run out of space.

"We've been forced to place two bodies in each rack," he said from the morgue that has the capacity to hold 126 corpses.

National radio reported that morgue was holding 236 bodies.

That did not appear to include 70 bodies at the morgue of the capital's military hospital, reported to the AP on Sunday by a doctor who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. Adding those corpses would bring the toll to more than 300 dead.

Buildings flattened by blast

A woman walks amongst debris near buildings damaged by the explosions on March 4. International experts on Monday fought to prevent fire from reaching a second arms depot in the capital of the Republic of Congo, a day after a blaze set off a series of explosions so violent they flattened buildings, killing hundreds and trapping countless others under the falling debris. (AP Photo)

Tuesday morning state television broadcast the first images from the off-limits disaster zone, indicating all buildings within a half-kilometre of the military camp of a tank regiment were completely flattened by the explosions, including three schools and two churches where dozens were praying.

National TV also showed images of earth-moving equipment removing rubble and several ambulances being filled with newly discovered corpses.

"It's like a tsunami without water," Security Minister Raymond Zephirin Mboulou declared on TV as he conducted an inspection with other Cabinet members.

Sunday's shockwaves shattered windows 10 kilometres away across the Congo River in downtown Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Central African nation of Congo.

Government blames short circuit

Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short circuit for the fire that set off the blasts. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso described the ordeal as "a tragic accident." The defence minister rushed to reassure people that the fire was not a sign of a coup or a mutiny in the country that suffered a civil war in 1997.

Hundreds of people milled around the grounds of the main hospital, awaiting news of the wounded who overflowed wards.

Congo's director-general of health, Prof. Elira Dokekias, told AP that the capitals' hospitals were treating 1,340 injured people and that 60 were awaiting urgent surgeries.

Delphin Kibakidi, spokesman of the local Red Cross, said people were emerging from the scene of the disaster with "unbearable wounds," such as amputated legs and arms and organs falling out.

Medical teams from former colonizer France, Italy, Morocco, Sao Tome and Principe and neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo arrived Monday and Tuesday to help, Dokekias said. The Moroccan military doctors brought a field hospital and French doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, also brought medical supplies. France sent 2.5 tons of medication, an amount matched by the UN World Health Organization.

But there remains an urgent need for psychologists, Dokekias said.

"We urgently need someone to take charge of the psychological needs because there are many, many traumatized patients," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, "We are still receiving more wounded, and we expect that there will be more dead when rescuers can get to the debris."

Children found wandering alone

National television was broadcasting photographs of the dozens of children found wandering the streets alone.

Municipal worker Marie Engouere said she had gone to the TV station along with about 100 other parents who have not been able to find their children among those shown on television. She said she was at work Sunday and her 5-year-old American son Emmanuel was at their home neighbouring the garrison. That area was razed in the blast.

"People say they saw one of the neighbours saving my son, but up to now no one has brought him to me," she cried.

In one joyful reunion amid the disaster, Laurette Ngoy found her 3-month-old baby on Monday.

"I was bathing the baby when suddenly I heard this huge explosion and ran out into the street in a panic, totally naked," she said.

She handed the child to a neighbour and returned to her home to collect clothes when a second blast exploded. The neighbour fled with the baby.

"This has been the very worst day that I'll never forget in my life," she said of her wanderings for nearly 24 hours trying to find her child. On Tuesday, she finally ran into the neighbour, still clutching her baby.

Marian Ambeto was struck on the head by debris from an exploding shell. "I never could have imagined that in an instant, buildings in front of me could cave in like a cardboard carton," said the 32-year-old. "It was like the films we watch on television."

Kibakidi said the Red Cross has set up four camps in churches holding some 3,000 refugees.

"It is estimated that thousands have effectively been displaced and lost their homes. Several schools were also destroyed by the blasts," said a U.S. Embassy statement reporting on a meeting of foreign ambassadors with government officials Monday. It said the United States, other embassies and non-governmental organization were working with the government on how best to deliver aid.

Among the dead were six employees of a Chinese construction firm which had 140 Chinese workers at its construction site when the first blast happened, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Dozens were injured.