BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — Families desperately crowded outside morgues on Wednesday while others tried to get past the police tape blocking access to the wasteland that now stretches over one-square-mile of this African capital.
It’s a tableau of twisted metal, punctuated by the unmistakable smell of death. More than three days since a fire inside an arms depot set off a series of catastrophic explosions, officials say no coordinated rescue effort has yet been launched, making it increasingly unlikely that any more people will be pulled alive from the flattened homes, churches, businesses and government buildings.
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“God, have pity on me. What will become of me without my husband? Why, Lord?” wept 26-year-old Gisele Nseka outside the municipal morgue where she had gone to search for his body.
The force of the detonation was so strong that even the leaves were blasted off the trees. The affected area looks like a field in winter, the tropical hardwoods still standing denuded of vegetation. It’s a landscape of blasted walls and children’s shoes, of buckled homes and pieces of paper, including one woman’s grocery list and another’s sonogram.
At least 246 people were killed after the fire in the armory catapulted shells, mortars, rockets and other munitions into the densely populated neighborhood of Mpila, according to national radio.
The death toll is likely to rise as the debris is removed, and a simple walk across the site indicates why: At frequent intervals you can smell the odor of decomposing flesh. You can see concentrations of flies on top of slabs of cement. In one spot, the flies were crawling over a patch of earth, stained with what appeared to be blood.
The Red Cross has been barred from entering the blast zone because of the risk of another explosion, said spokesman Delphin Kibakidi. And the columns and columns of soldiers that are allowed in are concentrating on extinguishing the flames still burning after the country’s cache of war-grade weapons caught fire Sunday.
“The only rescue effort was by the people who lived here themselves, and who came back and dug out the bodies of their loved ones,” said an army captain who accompanied a team of reporters inside the roped-off disaster area and who asked not to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the subject. “I doubt that anyone is still alive, but if they are, they’ll need to wait until we put out the fire, because it’s too dangerous. There are still unexploded bombs,” he said.
The threat of further explosions remains. After the London-based Mines Advisory Group inspected the blast site on Wednesday, they said in a statement that the area over which the unexploded rockets and mortars are spread is “huge.”
“Much of the content of the munitions depot has been spread out over the city,” said Lionel Cattaneo, the group’s technical operations manager. “This level of contamination is a huge risk to the public – these are deadly items in a potentially unstable condition. They could be damaged, or primed to explode.”
The government announced a period of national mourning to be observed until victims are buried, at an unknown date. And a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in the neighborhoods nearest the disaster to stop looters from searching the rubble at night.
The fact that the tragedy occurred on a Sunday saved some people, while likely causing the death of others. Children were not in school, so the imploded grammar school trapped less victims than if the incident had occurred on a weekday.
By contrast, it’s unlikely that anyone was spared who was attending Mass at the church directly in front of the arms depot.
The blue plastic chairs that served as pews have been blown to smithereens, their pieces scattered over an area the size of an acre. The bibles were also shredded apart. There’s a page from Matthew 26, the chapter that deals with the betrayal of Jesus.
It’s not the first time that there has been an explosion inside this arms depot. The government had promised to move the armory outside the city after an earlier blast in 2009. Many now say they feel betrayed.
“For years we have told the government that we can’t put a military camp 100 yards from people’s homes,” said 65-year-old retiree Louis Okouli, whose house looks like it was hit by a cyclone. He was one of the only civilians that had managed to sneak past the police cordon, in order to see if he could find his pension documents. Instead, he found an awful smell inside his upside-down home – even though his family survived the accident. “Maybe it’s the cat,” he said.
Military spokesman Col. Jean Robert Obargui confirmed that the humanitarian operation had not yet started.
“It’s today that we are planning on meeting to agree on how to start the rescue effort,” said Obargui. “There have continued to be detonations – as recently as yesterday. And it’s not safe to go in. We need to detoxify the area of the unexploded ordnance first, and then the humanitarian effort can start.”
Among the many people that are still unaccounted for are the military recruits whose dormitory collapsed. One of their trainers, 41-year-old Adj. Luc Elessi, was at the ruins on Wednesday along with his commanding officer.
Elessi said that there were over 519 recruits, of whom only around 300 have been accounted for. Many had taken leave to go see their families because it was a Sunday, while others had gotten up early to go for a run, making it likely that the majority survived and are just out of touch. But a good number were still in bed at around 8 a.m. when the first explosion occurred, and he says he believes at least 50 are buried under the dormitory’s fallen beams.
“You see that smell? You know what that means,” said Elessi, who was working to remove debris by hand in the 1-foot of space left between the first and the second floors of the dormitory. “We can’t see what is under these beams.”