March 4, 2012 at 9:13 PM CST - Updated June 26 at 4:52 PM
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Houses and buildings collapsed in the Congolese capital Sunday, entombing inhabitants after an arms depot exploded, killing at least 206 people, officials said, including dozens attending Mass in a church that buckled under the force of the blast.
The shock waves shattered windows in a three-mile (five-kilometer) radius surrounding the arms depot, including across the river that separates Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, from Kinshasa, the capital of the larger Central African nation of Congo.
"It's like a tsunami passed through here," said Christine Ibata, a student. "The quarter has practically collapsed, with roofs of houses blown off."
A morgue in Brazzaville took in 136 bodies Sunday afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A local hospital reported at least 237 patients wounded in the blasts. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso toured two hospitals and a morgue as dozens of injured people were being brought in including a 4-year-old who had lost his leg. The president was visibly moved, but made no public comments.
It's unclear what started the fire at the weapons depot, but an official at the president's office said the depot is used to store war-grade weapons including mortars. The first blast went off at around 8 a.m., and several smaller blasts were heard throughout the morning. Another major explosion went off at around 1 p.m.
Defense Minister Charles Zacharie Boawo appeared on national television to urge calm in Brazzaville and in the neighboring capital, Kinshasa.
"The explosions that you have heard don't mean there is a war or a coup d'etat," he said. "Nor does it mean there was a mutiny. It is an incident caused by a fire at the munitions depot."
Didier Boutsindi, an official in the president's office, said the explosion woke him "with the force of an earthquake." Doors in his house, which is located several miles away from the arms depot, were thrown open and several windows cracked. He began making calls, and when he realized the origin of the blast, his first thought was his uncle, whose home is located just next to the depot.
"The house fell completely," Boutsindi said. "He was sleeping. His wife was at church. His children — small children — were playing outside," he said. "The neighbors dug out the body and brought him to the morgue."
The body was among the countless others that were being brought in by car, on stretchers, and carried by shell-shocked residents. The death toll is likely to rise, Boutsindi said, as many more people remained trapped inside crushed structures, including the faithful of the St. Louis Church, who were attending Mass when the blasts began.
The munitions depot is near the president's private residence, but he was at his official residence in another part of town and was not hurt. The explosions caused buildings to shake as far away as Kinshasa, separated from Brazzaville by the 3-mile wide Congo River. An enormous plume of smoke could be seen snaking across the sky.
France is sending a shipment of emergency aid to Brazzaville after the explosions, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement Sunday night. A ministry official had no immediate details on what kind of aid or how much was being sent.
Patients crowded into hospitals, some with torn clothes and shocked expressions. Some lay on the floor as medics struggled to treat the crowd. Among the dead were Chinese workers working for a company located near the depot that was building low-income housing.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese embassy officials as saying three Chinese workers were killed and dozens were injured in the explosions. It said that Duan Jinzhu, political counselor at the embassy, had confirmed the deaths.
Xinhua said the dormitory building of Huawei Technologies Ltd, China's largest maker of telecommunications equipment, was badly damaged, although no casualties were reported.
Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, and Scott McDonald in Beijing, contributed to this report.