LAHORE, Dec 11: At least 40 people, including women and children, were killed when a bus carrying a wedding party exploded on Ghazi Road in North Cantonment on Sunday evening. “I can confirm 40 deaths so far, but the toll may rise further. It is difficult to precisely count the number of dead. There were about 70 people on board the bus,” Lahore operations police chief Amir Zulfikar Khan told reporters.

Mr Khan said it was also difficult to say how many women and children were among the victims. But according to an Edhi Foundation official, the deceased included a two-month-old baby, eight women, three girls and two boys.

Police said Zaheer Khan, 28, of Ghazi Road had returned last month from Saudi Arabia to get married. His wedding was solemnized in Garhi Shahu before he drove his bride Zeba, 25, home, the police said.

As the vehicle approached the groom’s home, the revellers on the bus began exploding firecrackers. One firecracker reportedly hit the fuel tank of the bus, which already had a stockpile of firecrackers inside, the police said while quoting an eyewitness.

The fuel tank blew up and the bus almost swung in the air, the police said. Within seconds, the bus was in flames as more firecrackers inside it exploded.

“Everybody was running helter-skelter. It was just like a doomsday scenario. People were shouting bomb, bomb,” said Nauman Akhtar, an eyewitness. “It seemed as if many bombs had been planted inside the bus.” He said he saw some of the bus passengers breaking windowpanes and jumping down.

Personnel of Rescue 1122 were the first to reach the spot. They were joined by officials and workers from Edhi Foundation, police, civil defence, fire tenders and other civic agencies.

It took them more than an hour to put out the blaze. Besides people from Pakistan Army, senior police officials with the operations chief in command reached there and supervised the rescue operation.

The smell of charred bodies and that of the smouldering wreckage kept rescue workers at bay for another half an hour. A large number of residents gathered on the scene helped the civic agencies in rescue work.

“Here we learn how much helpless we are. We saw people burning in fire right in front of us and we couldn’t do anything,” said Ismail, a local resident.

“Each body inside the bus has been incinerated,” a rescuer said. “We could not identify who was a man and who was a woman.” The rescuers retrieved the bodies from the wreckage. Some of the bodies were glued to the bus seats and some others were entangled into seats and beneath them, an official of the Rescue 1122 said. The bodies were taken out after rescue workers cut through the seats.

However, he said about 16 persons, including a woman and a minor girl, had managed to escape with critical burns and cut wounds from the burning bus. Seven other people escaped unhurt. They were all rushed to the CMH, Shalamar Hospital and Mayo Hospital. Of them, at least 10 injured persons were stated to be in critical condition, the police said, while quoting doctors.

“I was standing near the bus gate when something sparked inside. All windowpanes and doors of the bus were closed because of cold weather. The bus was in smoke and flames within seconds,” one of the injured persons, Hafeez Khan said at the Mayo Hospital.

“We thought that some seat had caught fire or the vehicle had got some technical problem,” Hafeez Khan added. “There were explosions after explosions when I jumped off.”

Meanwhile, most family members of the groom and bride were in state of shock and refused to make any comment. “Please, leave us alone,” the groom said when a press photographer tried to snap him. “The only thing I know is that it is a judgment day for us.”

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