At least 16 schoolchildren and a teacher were burnt to death on Saturday when their school van’s gas cylinder exploded in the Kot Fateh Din area of Gujrat, officials said. Another seven children were seriously injured in the blaze which destroyed the vehicle.
The van was carrying 24 children to Jinnah Public School in the Mangowal area of Gujrat from the city’s Kunjah neighbourhood when it caught fire. The children were aged between five and 15 years, said local police chief Dar Ali Khattak, adding that a female teacher also died.
Police said the fire appeared to have started when the driver of the dual-fuel vehicle switched from compressed natural gas (CNG) to gasoline.
“The fire erupted in the vehicle when the children were only a few kilometres away from their school,” he said. The blaze was apparently caused by a spark when the driver of the van switched from CNG to petrol, he said. Curiously, he said, the gas cylinder itself was intact.
Talking to the British Broadcasting Corporation, District Coordination Officer (DPO) Asif Bilal Lodhi said the incident occurred at 7:10am. He too cited a short circuit as the cause of the fire.
The driver, who fled the scene of the incident, has been arrested in Kharian, police official Abid Khan said.
According to initial information, the driver had also kept petrol in a plastic bottle, as reserve fuel for emergency use, which may have intensified the fire, he added.
“As soon as I switched the [running van] to petrol, it caught fire,” the driver, Irfan, told television channels.
“I jumped out and opened the front door… I saved two children, but the fire spread... No one came near to help us,” he said. “I did the best I could.”
Parents were seen wailing after they saw the charred bodies of their children – most of whom were beyond recognition.
The dead included three children of a local police constable, Mohammad Riaz, and the teacher was their aunt, residents said. Thousands of people attended their funeral. The deceased also included two daughters and a son of local Jamaat-e-Islami politician Chaudhry Sajjad Ahmed.
“We told the driver about the strong odour of a gas leak. But he did not listen and soon after the fire erupted,” a 10-year-old boy, who survived the blaze, told journalists.
According to reports, the victims were trapped within the vehicle. The driver, the teacher as well as the children tried hard to open the doors of the van but they could not succeed. The driver finally broke open the door but by then many of the schoolchildren had died.
“The driver and the teacher tried to save the children but failed,” said one of the girls travelling at the back seat of the unlucky van.
A boy from the area who happened to be around at the time of the accident said, “Everyone was screaming for help.” He said he fetched a big stick and broke the glass but still could not save them.
Rescue 1122 workers were informed of the blaze by other commuters on the road. They rescued those alive and still trapped in the van. The deceased and the injured were moved to Aziz Bhatti Shaheed Hospital in Gujrat.
According to Dr Kamran at the Aziz Bhatti Shaheed Hospital, seven children were critically injured in the accident.
Meanwhile, another official at the hospital said the injured children were referred to the Combined Military Hospital Kharian and the New Hospital Lahore.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2013.