MULTAN, Pakistan - Pakistan's prime minister cut short a trip abroad to rush to the side of victims of a massive fuel tanker fire as authorities on Monday raised the death toll to 157.
The truck, carrying some 6,600 gallons of gasoline, was traveling from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore when the driver lost control and crashed on a highway outside the town of Bahawalpur early on Sunday.
Alerted by an announcement over a loudspeaker at a local mosque, scores of villagers rushed to the scene to collect the spilled fuel. When the fire broke out, the villagers were engulfed in flames, many burned beyond recognition.
Dr. Nahid Ahmed at the Nishter Hospital in Multan, about 60 miles away, said four of the victims that were brought from Bahawalpur had died overnight, bringing the death toll to 157. Ahmed said 50 more severely burned victims were being treated at his hospital.
Rescue official Mohammad Baqar at the Bahawalpur hospital said 20 more victims were transported on Monday by a military C-130 plane to Lahore for better medical care.
Prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who visited the Victoria Hospital in Bahawalpur on Monday, ordered that more of those most critically hurt be transferred to bigger hospitals in the area, Baqar said.
Sharif cut short his trip abroad and rushed back home, reaching Bahawalpur on Monday to visit the victims and console the affected families. Sharif also announced 2 million rupees - almost $20,000 - as financial assistance for each family that lost someone in the highway inferno. Sharif also handed over checks of 1 million rupees ($10,000) for each burn victim being treated at the hospital in Bahawalpur.
"This is not compensation, no compensation is possible for precious human life, but it is to help the affected families in distress," Sharif said.
Many of the bodies will have to be identified through DNA testing, said Baqar.
"I have never seen anything like it in my life. Victims trapped in the fireball. They were screaming for help," said Abdul Malik, a police officer who was among the first to arrive at the scene.
When the flames subsided, he said, "we saw bodies everywhere. So many were just skeletons. The people who were alive were in really bad shape."
The dead included men, women and children.
The disaster struck on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that follows the holy month of Ramadan. While Saudi Arabia and most other Muslim countries started celebrating the holiday Sunday, Pakistanis are marking it on Monday.