LAGOS, Nigeria – Sadness turned to rage against the military about a string of explosions at a huge arms cache set in the middle of a crowded Lagos neighborhood. The blasts and resulting panic left at least 600 dead.
Distraught families searching for missing loved ones blamed the military for storing weapons, including rockets and heavy artillery shells, in the northern Ikeja neighborhood. The governor of Lagos state charged the army with negligence.
"The army uses money to buy weapons that kill us," yelled David Eyetse after emerging from a mortuary in the area's main hospital, where he had just found the body of his 19-year-old brother, Henry.
Many Nigerians remain distrustful of the military following 15 years of corrupt and sometimes brutal dictatorship that ended with 1999 elections.
President Olusegun Obasanjo on Tuesday declared a day of national mourning. Hundreds died from the time the blasts began Sunday evening until they ended the next morning. Many of the dead were women and children who drowned after plunging accidentally into a canal while fleeing during the night. Flags were flown at half staff across Lagos, the commercial capital.
Obasanjo said that more 600 bodies had been recovered, many from the Oke Afa canal. "What happened in Lagos was a monumental tragedy," he said in a radio address.
Lagos' Vanguard newspaper estimated that more than 2,000 people were killed, while state television cited unidentified witnesses as saying between 750 and 1,000 bodies had been recovered. The reports could not be confirmed.
Some residents complained that lives could have been saved if authorities had built more bridges over a five-mile section of the canal where there is only one crossing.
Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. The blasts propelled shrapnel and shock waves for miles, shattering windows six miles away at the international airport.
The army has acknowledged the storage facility at Ikeja was old and in need of revamping. A spokesman said he did not know how the fire started, but a police officer on Sunday it began at a nearby gas station.
State and military officials were quick to assure Nigerians that the fire was accidental and not a sign of military unrest. They announced an investigation into its cause. Rumors of coups had circulated for more than an hour after the blasts began.
On Tuesday, Corp. Kabiru Lawal was searching for his sister after checking hospitals and mortuaries for nearly two days. She fled her home in the barracks to escape the explosions.
"She was very frightened, so we hope she found a safe place. We don't want to believe anything else," Lawal said.
Lagos Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu blamed the deaths on military negligence.
"Ikeja mortuary is filled; they have started to use other local government facilities," Tinubu said. "It's a disaster. We did not anticipate it would rise to this level."
Obasanjo's election ended 15 years of successive military dictatorships, whose legacy has left deep scars in this West African nation.
Suspicion of the military remains strong in Lagos — especially after some 200 to 300 eastern Nigerian villagers were massacred by the army last November in an apparent reprisal for the abduction and murder of 19 soldiers by ethnic Tiv militants.
The explosions sent fireballs towering over Nigeria's commercial capital. Hundreds of bodies on Monday were pulled out of the canal in Lagos' Isolo neighborhood, about 5 miles from the arms depot.
Getting an accurate count remained difficult — in part because volunteers were carrying out the rescue effort and whisking some bodies to private homes.
An unknown number of people were also killed or injured while handling unexploded shells and ammunition that were propelled for miles by the blasts, Lagos State Police Commissioner Mike Okiro said.
In Isolo, a boy was casually tossing in his hands what looked like a hand grenade.
Large numbers of children were separated from their families during Sunday night's panic, Okiro said.
Lagos state government spokesman Dele Alake appealed Wednesday for donations of food and other supplies for the thousands been left homeless by the accident — many of them residents of the military base.
Pope John Paul II sent a condolence message to Nigerian bishops, assuring his "closeness in prayer" for victims of the tragedy and for the rescue workers.