BOGOTA, Colombia — At least 33 children were killed when a bus caught fire in northern Colombia, trapping the young passengers aboard the burning vehicle as horrified onlookers stood by helplessly.
The bus was transporting 48 children between the ages of 2 and 13 to their homes after a Pentecostal church service when the tragedy happened Sunday in Fundacion, a sugar- and banana-growing town near the Caribbean coast.
Witnesses quoted by El Heraldo, the newspaper in nearby Barranquilla, said the bus stalled and that the driver tried to restart it by pouring gasoline over the carburetor. A spark caused an explosion, and flames quickly engulfed the vehicle, the report said.
Residents said they heard screams for help but were unable to intervene due to the intense heat of the flames.
“I never saw anything so terrifying,” said taxi driver Alvaro del Valle.
“They came to speak with God and look what happened,” added Clara Lopez, a local resident.
An adult who was accompanying the children on the bus, identified in news reports as Rosiris Hernandez, was able to evacuate some of the young passengers with help from another taxi driver, the newspaper report said.
The bus driver fled the scene but was later arrested after local media spread the word that he was being sought, according to El Tiempo newspaper in the capital, Bogota.
Police told reporters that the driver did not have a valid driver’s license. The bus lacked a legally required fire extinguisher, had no emergency exit and was not insured, they said. There also had been no recent safety inspection of the vehicle, police said.
A team of forensic experts was assembled to help identify the victims, most of whom were burned beyond recognition.
They included 7-year-old Antonio Jose Pavon, who succumbed Monday to third-degree burns over most of his body, local news reports said. He was one of 16 injured in the fire.
Fundacion Mayor Luz Estela Duran declared three days of mourning for the dead, who came mostly from poor families.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who is campaigning for re-election, visited the town Sunday evening. He declared a day of national mourning and said the government would shoulder funeral costs. He also called on the Transportation Ministry to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident.