Like people voraciously pounce on wedding feasts, residents of the various bastis (villages) near Ahmedpur East – men, women, children, rich and poor, literate and illiterate –ventured to claim their share of 60,000 litres of oil leaking from a tanker that overturned along the national highway on Sunday. According to sources, soon after the oil tanker met the accident and overturned, an announcement was heard from several mosques informing people of the location of the oil spill from where they could claim their free share. Those at the site reportedly called their friends and family informing them of, what at that time, seemed like good news. Indeed, this is not the first time that an oil tanker had turned turtle or that a sizable number of people went on a rampage. But the fire that had erupted at the site and the number of casualties is indeed unprecedented. The local administration believes that the oil tanker overturned sometime between 5 and 6 am, after which people kept endangering their lives until the first blast took place at6:20am. In the presence of hundreds of people – anything ranging from someone using a mobile phone to cars passing by applying brakes or someone perhaps smoking a cigarette could have triggered the unfortunate fire. It could have been avoided had the police cordoned off the area in time and stopped the people from accessing the accident site. Assuming that the local police were not asleep but were alert and on duty during those early hours. The tragedy is yet another example of lack of professionalism amongst the police. Many amongst the public tried to get people away from the site but there was such excitement that those who came once went back to store the booty and returned with other utensils. Many mothers reportedly sent their children to partake of the booty. Thus far, the accident has caused 164 casualties out of which only 39 bodies are recognisable and 125 charred beyond recognition. DNA samples have been taken from 108 families to identify these bodies. According to Dr Javed Iqbal, a professor and head of surgery at the Quaid-e-Azam Medical College that is attached with the Bahawal Victoria Hospital (BVH), notwithstanding the need for a burn centre at the hospital, the system could not have been able to cater for such a tragedy. In his words: “this was a mass casualty that in medical terms is beyond the capacity of the institution or the available system” which made it the most taxing yet professionally satisfying time of his 30-years of medical career. The BVH managed to provide initial resuscitation to burn patients, provide help according to standard guidelines, coordinate with local administration and GoC Bahawalpur to airlift patients from the site, and organise a makeshift mortuary since the hospital’s capacity was for 16 bodies only. At this juncture, there are 119 patients under treatment out of which the highest number are at the Nishtar Hospital, Multan, (45); followed by BVH (29); Jinnah hospital, Lahore (22); Ahmedpur East Tehsil Headquarters (THQ) Hospital (14); and Combined Military Hospital (CMH) Bahawalpur (2). A lot of these patients who have received over 50 per cent burns may not be able to survive. While public debate seems to concentrate on absence of burn centres and poverty or lack of education – what happened in Bahawalpur was a mass tragedy beyond the capacity of any system. Such accidents can be prevented through inculcating civic sense among people and ensuring efficient policing. This is the time that the state must think about investing in police and making it more accountable. It would indeed be unfortunate if the Punjab government rewards hard work with a heartless inquiry by a bureaucrat who will not be able to understand many issues including the pressure that VVIP visits generate during such testing times. Although in this case, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif heeded advice and stopped his entourage from accompanying him to the ward where patients were under treatment. Such visits take control of operations away from professionals and put generalist-bureaucrats in charge of administration. Perhaps, a greater professionalism and de-politicisation of the bureaucracy would help. Published in Daily Times, June 29th, 2017.