Men stand next to the burnt school van near Gujrat, Pakistan, on Saturday. (Reuters)
Islamabad, May 25: Sixteen schoolchildren and a teacher were killed when their moving school van caught fire in Punjab province, according to rescue and government officials.
Seven other children were injured, two of them critically.
The accident, which took place near Mangowal town of Gujrat district in Punjab province this morning just after 7.30am (local time), was caused by faulty wiring in the van, which belonged to a private school, said Asif Bilal Lodhi, the top civilian official of Gujrat district.
“The wiring caught fire when the driver tried to switch from petrol to compressed natural gas,” Lodhi said in a phone interview. “The gas cylinder did not burst, contrary to earlier reports.”
Because of high petrol prices, most public transport vehicles in Pakistan have been fitted with compressed natural gas kits, which, although cheaper, often pose a safety threat. There are an estimated 2 million vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, or CNG, in Pakistan.
The children were between the ages of 5 and 12, and the female teacher was believed to be in her early 20s. Lodhi said the authorities were searching for the driver. “The driver did not try to rescue the children, showed cowardice and ran away,” Lodhi said.
The seven injured children were taken to the Combined Military Hospital in neighbouring Kharian, according to government and rescue officials. Parents of two children who received burns over 90 per cent of their bodies asked to have their children to Lahore, the provincial capital, for treatment.
“Their condition was very serious but the parents were very insistent,” Lodhi said. “So, we provided them with an ambulance to take them to Lahore.”
Mangowal town is located about 19km from Gujrat, an industrial city known for production of electrical appliances and export quality furniture.
Schools in Gujrat district were closed in mourning after news of the accident spread. Amid concern and outrage over frequent accidents related to vehicles fitted with CNG kits, people associated with the CNG industry stressed that the gas cylinders were not solely to blame.
Ghiyas Abdullah Paracha, who heads The All Pakistan CNG Association, said in an interview this afternoon that the accident was not caused by leakage of a CNG cylinder. Two cylinders were intact in the school van, he said.
Paracha blamed the accident on the poor quality of mechanical work in dual-fuel vehicles, especially older models of vans and cabs, which can cause fatal accidents.
“Due to apparent short-circuiting of the wires, there was a spark and the van caught fire”, he said.
In a statement, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, the caretaker Prime Minister, said he was “shaken to learn about the tragic incident'” and he urged the authorities to provide the “best medical care to those injured and all possible assistance to the bereaved families”.