Saeed Al-Khotani and Mishal Al-Otaibi
RIYADH – At least 22 people were killed when a gas tanker crashed into a bridge in Riyadh Thursday, triggering an explosion that brought down an industrial building and torched nearby vehicles, officials and eyewitnesses said.
Prince Sattam Bin Abdul Aziz, Emir of Riyadh, directed authorities concerned to start an investigation into the accident and send him a detailed report as soon as possible.
Health Ministry spokesman Saad Al-Qahtani said 135 people were injured in the disaster. He said they were mostly men and included some foreigners.
The Civil Defense department said the tanker carrying butane gas hit a bridge on Khurais Road-Sheikh Jaber Street intersection in the eastern part of the city at about 7.30 a.m., causing a gas leak and an explosion in a nearby heavy machinery and vehicles warehouse.
A bus that had been gutted by the fire stood idle on the bridge, with witnesses saying that the vehicle had been transporting workers whose fate remained unknown. Another truck fell off the bridge due to the impact of the explosion, the witnesses said.
The Director General of Civil Defense, Lieutenant General Saad Al-Tuwaijri, said the accident took place because of the misconduct of the tanker driver. He also warned of hazard to about 10,000 onlookers and passers-by who had gathered at the site of the gas leak.
The Commander of Ring Roads and Secret Police Traffic in Riyadh, Lieutenant Colonel Ali Al-Qahtani, said that Khurais Road is closed from both directions until further orders.
Civil Defense spokesman Captain Mohamed Hubail Hammadi said that the tanker driver was surprised by a road accident on the route, causing it to crash into one of the pillars of the bridge. He said that the explosion and fire happened after leaked gas filled the area.
The warehouse, several storys high, was leveled by the blast, which also caused severe damage to other neighboring buildings. Rubble, twisted metal and shattered glass littered a wide stretch of the surrounding area.
“Three consecutive explosions happened, one of them was very huge,” an Egyptian eyewitness told Saudi Gazette.
“I was inside the building when the blast came. Then boom, the building collapsed. Furniture, chairs and cabinets blasted into the room I was in,” said survivor Kushnoo Akhtar, a 55-year-old Pakistani worker, who was covered in dirt and bleeding from multiple cuts. “My brother is still inside under the rubble. There are lots of people in there.” The blast was on one of the capital’s busiest roads but because Saudi Arabia is still observing the Eid Al-Adha holiday, traffic was lighter than normal.
Dozens of burnt-out vehicles surrounded the scene of the blast, including a mini bus and other cars on top of the bridge, which was left buckling after the accident.
More than 100 emergency personnel were combing the wreckage on the bridge and searching for victims in the rubble of the building, which housed the operations of Zahid Tractor, a distributor of heavy machinery.
Deputy Emir of Riyadh region, Prince Muhammad Bin Saad, and Minister of Health, Dr Abdullah Al-Rabeah, visited the injured in hospitals.
Although the accident took place near the headquarters of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the Prince Naif Arab College for Security Sciences, officials speaking on television said it was not related to any terrorist activity.
But the explosion has raised a number of questions, such as how the fuel tanker was allowed to enter the city area in the morning.
Prince Sattam had given specific directives in the beginning of this Hegira year to authorities concerned to organize the entry of trucks into Riyadh and reduce traffic congestion caused by these trucks during rush hour. The directives also stipulated that the human risks these trucks pose should be avoided. – With agencies