A horrific tragedy near Bahawalpur caused by an oil tanker spill close on the heels of terrorist strikes in Parachinar and Quetta cast a pall of gloom over the Eid festival. As many as 138 persons were burnt alive and 117 severely injured some of whom later died in hospitals. Several others are still fighting for their lives. The incident is shocking not only because of the sheer scale of lives lost, but also because it was not an inevitable disaster. According to reports, an oil tanker overturned on the National Highway while negotiating a turn, leaking out 50,000 litres of petrol it was carrying. A large number of people gathered on the scene to collect free petrol. The activity went on for about 45 minutes until someone lit a cigarette triggering an inferno that instantly consumed so many precious lives. Some have insensitively blamed the victims for being greedy and bringing death upon themselves. Surely no one would have wanted to put their lives at risk had they been aware of the danger involved.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had cut short his foreign trip on hearing the news and returned on the Eid day, visited the injured in different hospitals and distributed cheques among the victims’ families. He also addressed a news conference in Bahawalpur alongside Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, promising to find out if the company of the oil tanker involved was guilty of any negligence. The CM, besides giving details of the various relief measures he had been supervising, twice emphasized the point that lack of education – hence lack of awareness – and corruption were to blame for the appalling tragedy. Indeed, so much suffering could have been averted had the people been better educated and hence aware. The explanation, however, sounds rather awkward considering that between him and his brother, third time Prime Minister Sharif, they have been ruling over the provincial affairs for much of the last four decades. In any event, it would not have happened had the concerned authorities at once cordoned off the hazardous area to keep people away. The incident has also exposed lack of medical facilities in nearby hospitals. Some lives could have been saved if proper medical care was available more immediately than was the case.
Now that the horror has occurred it needs to be investigated why the tanker overturned in the first place. According to some reports, the driver was asleep from exhaustion having travelled a long distance. It is possible too that the tanker was not in a road worthy condition or the turn was too sharp for a large lorry to pass around easily. It may be recalled that a while ago, following two devastating incidents – one in Punjab and the other in Sindh – involving buses carrying schoolchildren, experts had pointed to defects in construction designs at various points on the National Highway. Whatever the cause of the present heartbreaking incident, it must be determined properly and aside from holding those responsible to account, necessary amends ought to be made. Hopefully, the relevant authorities in Punjab as well as other provinces have drawn lessons from the tragedy to ensure it never happens again.