BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — Morticians stacked bodies two to a tray at Brazzaville’s main morgue Tuesday as state radio reported at least 246 people had died from two days of explosions at an armory that catapulted shells, rockets and other munitions into a densely populated area of the capital of the Republic of Congo.
Police said international firefighters had brought the main blaze under control by Tuesday morning, and prevented it from spreading to a second munitions depot just 100 yards (meters) away. The second depot contains even heavier-caliber weapons, including Stalin’s Organ multiple rocket launchers, a military source said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
It still was unclear whether rescue efforts could start in earnest, nearly three days after the first blasts. The military source said there were plans for the controlled destruction of the munitions in the second depot, which likely will delay any attempts to dig into the rubble to find possible survivors or bodies.
There are fears that undetonated munitions have been catapulted miles (kilometers) away by the blasts, and that the many small fires ignited could suck away oxygen needed by any entombed survivors.
The government announced a period of national mourning to be observed from Tuesday until victims are buried, at an unknown date.
At the morgue of the city’s main Central University Hospital, funeral services director Ferdinand Malembo Milandou said on national television that they had run out of space.
“We’ve been forced to place two bodies in each rack,” he said from the morgue that has the capacity to hold 126 corpses.
National radio reported that morgue was holding 236 bodies.
That did not appear to include 70 bodies at the morgue of the capital’s military hospital, reported to the AP on Sunday by a doctor who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. Adding those corpses to state radio’s toll citing the director of the main hospital mortuary would bring the number of dead to more than 300.
Malembo Milandou emphasized that the wounded still were coming in Tuesday and that some were dying in hospitals. Many more corpses are likely to be found when rescue workers can dig into debris.
Tuesday morning state television broadcast the first images from the off-limits disaster zone. A survey by AP indicated all buildings within a two-kilometer (1.25-mile) radius of the military camp of a tank regiment were completely flattened, including three schools and two churches where scores were attending Sunday services.
National TV also showed images of earth-moving equipment removing rubble and several ambulances being filled with newly discovered corpses.
“It’s like a tsunami without water,” Security Minister Raymond Zephirin Mboulou declared on TV as he conducted an inspection with other Cabinet members.
Sunday’s shockwaves shattered windows 10 kilometers (six miles) away across the Congo River in downtown Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Central African nation of Congo.
Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short circuit for the fire that set off the blasts. He put the death toll at “about 200.” President Denis Sassou-Nguesso described the ordeal as “a tragic accident.” The defense minister had rushed to reassure people that the fire was not a sign of a coup or a mutiny to clam the panic in a country that suffered a civil war in 1997.
Hundreds of people milled around the grounds of the main hospital, awaiting news of the wounded who overflowed wards.
Congo’s director-general of health, Prof. Elira Dokekias, told AP that the capitals’ hospitals were treating 1,340 injured people and that 60 were awaiting urgent surgeries.
Delphin Kibakidi, spokesman of the local Red Cross, said people were emerging from the scene of the disaster with “unbearable wounds,” such as amputated legs and arms and organs falling out.
Medical teams from former colonizer France, Italy, Morocco, Sao Tome and Principe and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo arrived Monday and Tuesday to help, Dokekias said. The Moroccan military doctors brought a field hospital and French doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, also brought medical supplies. France sent 2.5 tons of medication, an amount matched by the U.N. World Health Organization.
But there remains an urgent need for psychologists, Dokekias said.
“We urgently need someone to take charge of the psychological needs because there are many, many traumatized patients,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, “We are still receiving more wounded, and we expect that there will be more dead when rescuers can get to the debris.”
Offers of help poured in from around the world. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was on the verge of declaring Brazzaville a disaster zone, a technicality opening the way for disaster aid.
“I am profoundly saddened to learn of the loss of human lives and damages,” Clinton said in a statement.
National television was broadcasting photographs of the dozens of children found wandering the streets alone.
Municipal worker Marie Engouere said she had gone to the TV station along with about 100 other parents who have not been able to find their children among those shown on television. She said she was at work Sunday and her 5-year-old American son Emmanuel was at their home neighboring the garrison. That area was razed in the blast.
“People say they saw one of the neighbors saving my son, but up to now no one has brought him to me,” she cried.
In one joyful reunion amid the disaster, Laurette Ngoy found her 3-month-old baby on Monday.
“I was bathing the baby when suddenly I heard this huge explosion and ran out into the street in a panic, totally naked,” she said.
She handed the child to a neighbor and returned to her home to collect clothes when a second blast exploded. The neighbor fled with the baby.
“This has been the very worst day that I’ll never forget in my life,” she said of her wanderings for nearly 24 hours trying to find her child. On Tuesday, she finally ran into the neighbor, still clutching her baby.
Marian Ambeto was struck on the head by debris from an exploding shell. “I never could have imagined that in an instant, buildings in front of me could cave in like a cardboard carton,” said the 32-year-old. “It was like the films we watch on television.”
Kibakidi said the Red Cross has set up four camps in churches holding some 3,000 refugees.