BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — Buildings collapsed in the Congolese capital after an arms depot exploded Sunday, killing at least 206 people and entombing countless others including inside a church where dozens were attending Mass when it buckled under the force of the blast, officials and witnesses said.
The shock waves shattered windows in a three-mile (five-kilometer) radius surrounding the barracks storing the munitions, including across the river that separates Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, from Kinshasa, the capital of the larger Central African nation of Congo.
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“It’s like a tsunami passed through here,” said Christine Ibata, a student. “The roofs of houses were blown off.”
A morgue in Brazzaville took in 136 bodies Sunday afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A hospital worker who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media reported 70 more deaths. The death toll is expected to rise as rescuers remove debris and discover more bodies.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso toured two hospitals and a morgue as injured people were being brought in including a 4-year-old who had lost his leg. The president was visibly moved, but made no public comments.
It’s unclear what started the fire at the barracks, but an official at the president’s office said the depot is used to store war-grade weapons including mortars. The first blast went off at around 8 a.m., and several smaller blasts were heard throughout the morning. Another major explosion went off at around 1 p.m.
Defense Minister Charles Zacharie Boawo appeared on national television to urge calm in Brazzaville and in the neighboring capital, Kinshasa, both nations pummeled by years of war.
“The explosions that you have heard don’t mean there is a war or a coup d’etat,” he said. “Nor does it mean there was a mutiny. It is an incident caused by a fire at the munitions depot.”
Didier Boutsindi, an official in the president’s office, said the explosion woke him “with the force of an earthquake.” Doors in his house, located several miles away from the epicenter of the blast, were thrown open and several windows cracked. He began making calls, and when he realized the origin of the explosion, his first thought was his uncle, whose home is located just next to the depot.
“The house fell completely,” Boutsindi said. “He was sleeping. His wife was at church. His children – small children – were playing outside,” he said. “The neighbors dug out the body and brought him to the morgue.”
The uncle’s body was among the countless others that were being brought in by car, on stretchers, and carried by shell-shocked residents. The death toll is expected to rise, Boutsindi said, as many more people remained trapped inside crushed structures, including the faithful of the St. Louis Church, who were attending Mass when the blasts began.
The explosions caused buildings to shake as far away as Kinshasa, separated from Brazzaville by the 3-mile-wide Congo River. An enormous plume of smoke could be seen snaking across the sky.
France is sending a shipment of emergency aid to Brazzaville after the explosions, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement Sunday. Condolences began arriving from around the world.
“I was greatly saddened to hear of the large number of casualties in the explosions which occurred in Brazzaville today,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the families.”
Among the dead were Chinese workers working for a company located near the depot that was building low-income housing.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese embassy officials as saying three Chinese workers were killed and dozens were injured in the explosions. Xinhua said the dormitory building of Huawei Technologies Ltd, China’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, was badly damaged.
Patients crowded into hospitals, some with torn clothes and shocked expressions. Some lay on the floor as medics struggled to treat the crowd.