LAGOS, Nigeria – Rescuers worked Monday to recover hundreds of bodies of people killed after a series of explosions at a munitions depot rocked an area of Lagos Sunday night.
During the blasts, panic-stricken residents ran into the Oke Afa canal and drowned, witnesses said. Parts of the canal were covered with water hyacinths and those fleeing did not realize how deep the water was.
An army spokesman said the explosions were apparently set off by a fire that spread to the depot. It was not immediately clear how many people died in the blasts themselves.
Army Brig. Gen. George Emdin said there was "absolutely no one killed." But Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base, described seeing "so many dead bodies" as he fled the scene.
An Associated Press reporter saw the body of at least one young man on a street outside the base Monday, while the city's respected Guardian newspaper reported that 12 bodies and numerous wounded were carried from there on Sunday evening.
Dozens of blasts, which began shortly before 6:00 p.m. Sunday, sent a fireworks display of artillery ammunition hundreds of yards into the sky.
State and military officials went on national television Sunday night to appeal for calm. They said the explosions were an accident at an old facility and assured the population they were not an indication of military unrest.
A police officer, who gave his name as A.E. Odikaesieme, said the blasts had apparently been touched off by an explosion at a nearby gas station. This could not be independently confirmed.
Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said a fire spread to the munitions depot, but had no details on where the fire started.
The explosions, which shook the city's northern neighborhoods and shattered windows at the international airport six miles away, continued into the early morning hours.
Lagos State Police Commissioner Mike Okiro confirmed the events, but had no details on casualties. More than 200 bodies were pulled from the water, the independent Rhythm FM radio station reported. At least 35 corpses could be seen in the water, on the grass and in the backs of trucks being driven away.
Ben Nwachukwu, a businessman helping as a volunteer in the rescue effort, said he say about 200 bodies plucked out of the water in one small section of the canal. Other workers said they were retrieving large numbers of bodies from elsewhere on the waterway. A stretch of canal between five and seven miles was being searched.
"The people who fell in here are strangers to the area," said Nwachukwu. "They didn't know there was water until they were drowning."
Rescue workers and volunteers in small fishing boats used long poles Monday to search the canal for more bodies in Lagos' northern Isolo neighborhood.
Thousands of people gathered on the water's edge, crying and wailing each time rescuers located a body.
Strewn among the water hyacinths were a woman's pink shoe, a baby's slipper and a peace of bright orange and red cloth.
Olusegun Ajayi, an officer at the military base, said his home was destroyed and his three small children were missing.
"My wife and I don't know where they are," he said in tears.
As he spoke, flames were still licking the walls of a school inside the base.
Burning shrapnel from the blasts also lit fires that caved in the roof of the Divine Power Outreach Ministries Church on the top floor of a four-story building in the nearby working-class neighborhood of Oshodi.
A radio and television repair shop there was destroyed by a shell, which left jagged fragments jutting from the ground nearby.
"I was so afraid, I ran away without being able to save even a pocket radio," said Sani Mohammed, the shop's owner.
Next door, the windows and ceiling tiles of the Mandela hospital were destroyed, though all patients were safely evacuated, hospital staff said.
President Olusegun Obasanjo toured the base on Monday morning, addressing hundreds of soldiers and their families who had fled the barracks. He promised the military would investigate the cause of the accident.
Gesticulating angrily, members of the crowd chanted, "President, go inside!" They were referring to the munitions dump several hundred yards away, where flames and sharp cracking noises could still be seen and heard, even after the fires and major blasts had died down.
Obasanjo, who removed his shoes and climbed onto the hood of a car to address the crowd, promised to "organize displaced people, relocate people and reunite children with their families."
A small blast interrupted Obasanjo's speech, jolting jittery crowd members, although the president stood firm.
The widely observed democratic election of Obasanjo in 1999 ended 15 years of brutal military rule. But the country continues to suffer widespread poverty and dangerous ethnic and religious divides that regularly flare into violence.
The oil-rich nation of Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and Lagos — with more than 12 million residents — is its largest city.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.