Their names were Tommy, Moses, Junior, John, William—and there were many others.

Their mothers’ names are Oretha, Grace, Victoria, Marline, Nora—and there are many others.

They were elementary, high school and college students, motorcycle taxi drivers, workers, farmers and businessmen, and children from the community and surrounding area. Most were under age 35.

On Dec. 26, 2023, the day after Christmas, a tanker truck for the petroleum company God’s Willing, Inc. filled with 9,000 gallons of gasoline, roared into Totota, Bong County, Liberia, on the main highway. It overturned at 3 p.m. in the center of Totota and lay on its side for over two hours. During that time young people rushed to the scene. It was a party-like atmosphere, with some youth dancing and having a great time while others scooped gas dripping from the tanker.

When the tanker exploded at 5:30 p.m., life in Totota was changed forever.

Tommy, Moses, Junior, John, William and countless others were killed in the deadly explosion. About 130 people are believed to have burned to ash instantly from the heat. Some of the young people were badly burned. Thirty families of St. John Lutheran Church in nearby Bong, Liberia, lost family members to the blast.

After the tanker blast:

  • 103 patients were rushed to Phebe Hospital, a referral hospital managed by the Lutheran Church in Liberia (LCL). Sixty-five of those patients were referred to hospitals in Monrovia, the capital city.
  • 37 remains were buried Dec. 27 in a mass grave.
  • 17 burn victims were found a week later, hiding in their homes out of fear they would be arrested for stealing gasoline.
  • The bodies of a young man and woman were found in a swamp; apparently they ran into the water while aflame but didn’t survive.
  • Three times a week in January, ambulance sirens could be heard as bodies were brought back to Totota for burial. On one day seven bodies were buried.

The local clinic reports that its monthly patient load has doubled from around 1,000 patients to 2,000. Some patients are returning victims; others are family members experiencing stress-related illness. Clarena Senbor, the clinic director, said the current need is to address patients’ mental health in addition to their physical issues. The midwife staff is treating pregnant women who lost their partners on Dec. 26. Almost all the victims of the tanker blast were male.

Comfort, care and support

The LCL, a companion church of the ELCA, is active in the recovery process. On the Sunday following the tanker blast, LCL Bishop G. Victor Padmore came to St. John to preach a word of comfort and to visit affected families. LCL parishes from around Liberia have shown support in a variety of ways.

St. John, led by its pastors, Wuo Laywhyee and Romeo G. Momah, is active in serving and leading the Totota community response. Its New Year’s Eve worship was packed with young people seeking comfort and hope. In January, Deddeh Howard Kollie, an LCL pastor, led a service where over 100 people came forward for prayer. And each Sunday, St. John’s choir and director, Bendu Momah, can be found visiting victims and families. Singing and praying, they bring hope and comfort.

Another Lutheran, Tornorlah Vapilah, heads the National Disaster Response Team, which appointed Romeo Momah as chair of its Psycho-social Committee. Led by Momah, Totota pastors counsel and support victims and their families.

The LCL will continue to walk with the community as it deals with long-term issues:

  • Medical treatment for returning victims.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder for many in the community who experienced the tanker blast and loss of loved ones.
  • Occupational training for individuals disabled by their injuries and for families whose primary earner is dead or disabled.
  • Loss of income to pay school tuition for children of affected families.

Moving on amid grief

Healing is beginning to happen in the Totota community. Medical personnel and the Psycho-social Committee say the acute phase of the tragedy is finishing. Victims have been released from hospitals and have returned home; some parts of life are returning to normal. Soccer teams are active, babies are being born, school has resumed.

In April, after more than three months, the charred tanker was removed from the blast site. The move happened on a Wednesday, and the following Saturday, families of children who had never come home gathered ashes from the site and buried them.

This month one of those grieving mothers will visit Totota for the first time since Dec. 26. She said she needed the tanker removed first.

The Totota community continues to grieve while holding on to their connection with God and with each other.

Linda Johnson Seyenkulo
Linda Johnson Seyenkulo is an ELCA pastor, serving as teacher and academic cean at the Louis T. Bowers Lay Leaders and Ministers Training Center in Totota, Liberia. She and her husband, Bishop Emeritus D. Jensen Seyenkulo, live in Liberia, in Totota and Monrovia. She is also a writer and works in the area of pastoral care and counseling. Her hobbies are writing, reading, and keeping in touch with friends and family, especially her children, all over the world.

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