The accident happened just before lunchtime on the Dmitrovskoye Shosse, one of several wide avenues leading out of the city into the Moscow region. According to Yuri Sharykin, the deputy chairman of Moscow's commission for emergencies, a lorry carrying concrete slabs rammed into the back of the tanker as it waited at traffic lights. 'The hatch of the tanker flew off and fuel spurted on to the overhead cables of three trolley-buses,' he said. 'Fire spread from one to another.' The blaze also engulfed a car and bus and was so fierce that several tall trees near the road-side caught fire.
First reports said that dozens of people had died in the inferno. The fire brigade later put the number of dead at 11, though it said this might rise. At least eight people were being treated for serious burns in Moscow's Sklifosovsky hospital and many more had suffered less severe injuries.
The tragedy appalled but hardly surprised Muscovites. 'This was an accident just waiting to happen,' said Andrei, the driver of a Lada who was held up in enormous traffic jams resulting from Dmitrovskoye Shosse being cordoned off. 'It is a wonder we do not have more disasters like these when you consider the state of our roads and our vehicles.'
Heavy lorries of all kinds, belching exhaust fumes and carrying no description of their loads apart from the occasional 'inflammable' painted on their sides, are allowed into the centre of Moscow, where they compete on the badly congested roads with an increasing number of private cars and buses, and trolley-buses packed so tightly that they would shock residents of Calcutta.
The roads are pitted with deep pot holes, which drivers constantly swerve to avoid, and only about half the traffic lights in the city work, making intersections dangerous. The traffic police appear more interested in extracting bribes from drivers than helping them.
An official inquiry will no doubt be launched into yesterday's disaster, but it is most unlikely that anything will be done to improve safety. Russia is a nation of accident-prone people who throw up their hands in horror when tragedy strikes but seem unable to order the chaos which dooms them to frequent suffering.
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