JOHANNESBURG — A gas tanker that got stuck beneath a low overpass outside of Johannesburg exploded in a massive plume of fire early Saturday morning, killing at least nine people, injuring at least 60, and leaving a horrific scene of twisted vehicles and bystanders with missing limbs, according to the authorities and eyewitnesses.
The large early morning blast could be felt nearly half a mile away, officials said. It shattered windows and cracked the ceiling of the adjacent Tambo Memorial Hospital, where two dozen patients and 13 staff members suffered injuries ranging from severe burns to lacerations after being struck by flying debris, the authorities said.
“It resembles a war zone,” Panyaza Lesufi, the premier of Gauteng Province, where the accident occurred, said after touring the site.
The driver of the truck survived, the authorities said, and investigators were working to determine how he ended up getting his vehicle wedged beneath a bridge. The truck was headed from Richards Bay, a city along South Africa’s east coast, to Botswana, and Mr. Lesufi said it was unclear why it was passing through Boksburg, a community about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, where it crashed.
The driver either did not see the height restriction or there were no height restriction signs posted at the bridge, said Simon Zwane, the spokesman for South Africa’s Road Traffic Management Corporation. The truck got stuck halfway under the bridge, and gas was leaking, so the driver called the Fire Department, Mr. Zwane said.
Paul dos Santos was shopping inside a nearby gas station when he heard an explosion at about 6:45 on Saturday morning, he said. He then heard two smaller explosions, so he hopped in his vehicle to go see what was happening.
He said he heard the loud hiss of gas as he approached the crash site. Many people were gathered around, and he said he tried to urge them to get away, fearing that it might blow. But many did not listen, he said. About 45 minutes after he arrived at the scene, he was standing about 100 meters from the crash, filming with his phone, when the massive blast occurred, flinging him back several feet into his car, he said.
Mr. dos Santos, 42, said he then went back toward the bridge and it was “like a zombie apocalypse or something.”
People’s clothes were melted into their bodies, he said. One man was missing a leg, he said, and a child was missing an arm. Mr. dos Santos said he saw a decapitated head on the pavement, resting near a house.
“It was unreal,” he said. “It was something you only see in the movies.”
He said he did not see any police officers around. In a news conference, a police official did not address why they had not cleared people away.
Those standing close to the tanker when it exploded were either seriously injured or killed, the authorities said.
One of those bystanders who died was Ndumiso Mashaba, 26, according to his father, Lawrence Mashaba.
Mr. Mashaba said he was with his son at home, about 100 meters from the accident site, when the house rattled from an explosion. Mr. Mashaba said his son rushed out to see if he could help and to look for his brother, whom he thought might have been out there.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mashaba said, his son Ndumiso was still in the area when the final huge blast went off. He leaves behind a 5-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son, Mr. Mashaba said.
Mr. Mashaba said his daughter and daughter-in-law were also at the site, and were badly injured in the explosion and being treated at the hospital.
“We are coping,” Mr. Mashaba said. “We are surrounded by community and everybody is with us.”