BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Colombians voiced anger Monday after 32 children burned to death when an overcrowded bus burst into flames as authorities arrested the driver who was seen fleeing the inferno.
Authorities have arrested the driver who, according to a survivor, had gotten off the bus to refuel with a jerrycan when flames suddenly engulfed the vehicle on Sunday.
The children, aged 3 to 12 years old, were returning from evangelical church services in the small northern town of Fundación. The driver lost two of his own children in the tragedy.
Fundación Mayor Luz Stella Durán said another 20 were hospitalized. Most of the injured have second- or third-degree burns. She declared three days of mourning and banned alcohol consumption.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who rushed to the scene to console grieving families, said an investigation was underway while many Colombians denounced the accident as an example of the country’s poor enforcement of road safety.
“I am shattered, the entire country is in mourning for the death of these children,” Santos said. “We will go through everything with a fine-toothed comb.”
Crews at the scene pulled little charred bodies from the blackened wreckage before transporting them to the medical examiner’s office in the regional capital of Barranquilla to be identified — a task which could take days.
Authorities said the explosion occurred around noon, and that the fire was so intense they had problems determining the number of casualties.
Driver without license flees
The bus driver turned himself in to police after the relatives of victims chased him and hurled rocks at his home.
He was due to appear at a court hearing to explain himself.
The prosecutor’s office said the driver lacked a license to drive and was under investigation.
Transport Minister Cecilia Álvarez said the bus had lacked the authorization to provide services since 2012.
“It is an illegal vehicle that also lacked transport insurance,” Álvarez told RCN radio, adding that the initial investigations are leaning toward “driver recklessness.”
The driver apparently used contraband gasoline to refuel the bus, the minister said.
Local media quoted an 11-year-old girl who lost two brothers as saying that, at one point, the driver got off the bus to refuel while his young charges remained on board.
“Sparks flew,” she recalled. “It was then that the driver went to get water and then he left,” she said. “I broke a window and got my little sister out but I couldn’t save my two brothers.”
The tragedy became a political issue ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, in which Santos is seeking a second term.
Leftist candidate Clara Rojas said the accident “shows the country’s backwardness.”
“It is not only the driver’s irresponsibility. It is also the lack of rigor and presence of the authorities,” she said.
Colombians vented their fury on Twitter, one user with the handle @manialolita calling it “another tragedy foretold” while @ALCISERRATO said “the state does not fulfill its duty.”