BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — More than three days have passed since a catastrophic explosion laid waste to a section of the Republic of Congo's capital, and officials confirmed that as of Wednesday no coordinated rescue effort had been launched, making it increasingly unlikely that any more people will be pulled alive from the flattened houses.
The roads leading to the site of the blast have been cordoned off by officers in bulletproof vests. The Red Cross has not received authorization to go inside, said spokesman Delphin Kibakidi. And the columns of soldiers and firefighters that are allowed in are concentrating on extinguishing the flames still burning after the country's military depot caught fire Sunday, setting off a series of detonations so strong that they caused ceilings to cave-in over 1 mile away.
"The only rescue effort was by the people who lived here themselves, and who came back and dug out the bodies of their loved ones," said an army captain who accompanied a team of reporters inside the roped-off disaster area and who asked not to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the subject. "I doubt that anyone is still alive, but if they are, they'll need to wait until we put out the fire, because it's too dangerous. There are still unexploded bombs," he said pointing to a smoldering carcass of debris where a team of soldiers were working.
At least 246 people were killed after the fire in the armory catapulted shells, mortars, rockets and other munitions into a densely populated neighborhood in the capital of Brazzaville, according to national radio.
The death toll is likely to rise as the debris is removed, and a simple walk across the site indicates this: At frequent intervals you can smell the stench of decomposing flesh. You can see concentrations of flies on top of slabs of cement. In one spot, the flies were crawling over a patch of earth, stained with what appeared to be blood.
The force of the detonation was so strong that even the leaves were blasted off the trees. The area covering at least one-square-mile looks like a field in winter, the tropical hardwoods still standing denuded of vegetation.
It's a wasteland of twisted metal and children's shoes, of buckled homes and pieces of paper, including one woman's grocery list and another's sonogram.
The government announced a period of national mourning to be observed from Tuesday until victims are buried, at an unknown date. And a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in the neighborhoods nearest the disaster to stop looters from searching the rubble at night.
Among the many people that are still unaccounted for are the military recruits whose dormitory collapsed. One of their trainers, 41-year-old Adj. Luc Elessi, was at the ruins of the dormitory on Wednesday along with his commanding officer. The multistory dormitory had pancaked.
Elessi said that there were over 519 recruits, of whom only around 300 have been accounted for. Many had taken leave to go see their families because it was a Sunday, while others had gotten up early to go for a run, making it likely that the majority survived and are just out of touch. But a good number were still in bed at around 8 a.m. when the first explosion occurred, and he says he believes at least 50 are buried under the dormitory's fallen beams.
"You see that smell? You know what that means," said Elessi, who was working to remove debris by hand in the 1-foot of space left between the first and the second floors of the dormitory. "We can't see what is under these beams."
Military spokesman Col. Jean Robert Obargui said that he did not yet know what the death toll was from the dormitory collapse. "It's for sure that some of them died," he said.
He confirmed that the humanitarian operation had not yet started. "It's today that we are planning on meeting to agree on how to start the rescue effort," said Obargui. "There have continued to be detonations — as recently as yesterday. And it's not safe to go in. We need to detoxify the area of the unexploded ordnance first, and then the humanitarian effort can start."
The London-based Mines Advisory Group said that homes and streets are still littered with deadly munitions, including unexploded rockets and mortars. The group said that while most fires ignited by the blasts are under control, the blazes will likely not be fully extinguished until sometime on Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Saleh Mwanamilongo and Louis Okamba in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.