More than 100 people who rushed to scoop up fuel after a Nigerian petrol tanker tipped over Thursday were killed when the vehicle and pools of spilled oil caught fire.
PORT HARCOURT- Children were among those killed, while dozens more were badly burned, despite a warning from troops who arrived at the crash site that a blaze could ignite at any moment.
The tanker driving in the southern Rivers state swerved as it was trying to avoid a collision with three oncoming vehicles including a bus, said Kayode Olagunju, head of the state's Federal Road Safety Commission.
Shortly after the collision hundreds of locals in the Ahoada area flocked to the scene to collect the spilling fuel.
Some troops who reached the crash site before the fire broke out told people to clear off, but many ignored the warning, an official from the National Emergency Management Agency said.
Forces from the military's Joint Task Force "got to the scene before us. They warned people to leave the scene to avoid disaster. But many of them were busy scooping fuel. They disobeyed," Emenike Umesi explained.
The state's information commissioner Ibim Semenitari told AFP the fire had been put out but emergency services were still trying "to clear the carnage."
"More than 100 people were killed in the inferno from the petrol tanker, while around 50 with severe burns have been hospitalised," she said.
Some of those taken to the hospital were burned beyond recognition, while others appeared treatable, said Geoffrey Ikogha a local chief in Ahoada, near the oil hub of Port Harcourt.
He confirmed that women and children were among those killed.
Given the severity of the burns suffered by some of those in the hospital, the toll could increase, Semenitari told AFP.
"There is a chance that we could lose 10 to 15 more... medically, they are in a bad state," she said.
The crowd of relatives and sympathisers at the General Hospital in Ahoada was huge, with many sobbing uncontrollably, Ikogha recounted.
"Security people are having tough time controlling the surging crowd," added Ikogha. "The situation is tragic and pathetic."
Many of the dead were motorcycle taxi operators, known locally as "Okada", who raced to fill up their tanks after learning of the crash, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.
Motorcycle taxi driver Kingsley Jafure said the vehicle collision occurred at roughly 6:00 am, and the spilled petrol caught fire about 90 minutes later, but officials said the time between the crash and the blaze was shorter.
"At about 7:30 while I was inside trying to decide whether to go (scoop fuel) or not. That is when I saw that the tanker exploded," Jafure said.
Major accidents, often involving large-haul trucks, are common in Nigeria, where many of the roads are in terrible condition.
Lorries plying the country's roads are often old and poorly maintained and road worthiness checks are scant.
Abandoned trucks, some of them destroyed by heavy collisions, can regularly be seen along major Nigerian motorways.
Olagunju of the road safety agency declined to comment on state of the roads in the area, or the potential causes of the crash, saying he did want to undermine the investigation that has been launched.
In March, a petrol tanker caught fire after skidding off the road in southern Port Harcourt, killing six people and injuring several others.
In April last year, a fuel tanker overturned at an army checkpoint in the central part of the country, sparking an inferno in which some 50 people were killed.
More than 17,000 people died in about 31,000 road accidents across Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, between 2007 and 2009, according to the road federal road safety agency's 2010 report, the most recent published.
The agency said more than 73,000 were injured in these accidents during the period.