A hellish flood of burning fuel and storm waters swept through a small town in southern Egypt on Wednesday, engulfing houses in a watery inferno that with other flash flooding left at least 226 people dead.
Police and rescue officials worked late into the night picking bodies from flood-washed streets and burned-out houses after two fuel storage tanks in the southern village of Durunka were crushed by a collapsing bridge and set ablaze, sending a fiery flood sweeping through the streets.
An entire village near the southern city of Asyut, not far from Durunka, was destroyed and six others badly damaged as the heaviest rains in half a century pounded the Egyptian desert and the Nile Valley.
In the capital, motorists were stranded on flood-swollen streets and spent hours trying to negotiate their way across the teeming city, many abandoning their cars and coming to blows with other drivers in the paralyzed intersections.
"Really, the situation is very bad," said Col. Ahmed Kamel, a spokesman at security headquarters in Asyut, about 200 miles south of Cairo, which was overseeing the oil fire disaster in Durunka.
Kamel, speaking by telephone, said the official death toll from the fire and flooding in surrounding villages had reached 226 people shortly before midnight, with at least 27 others injured. A total of 407 houses in seven southern Egyptian villages were destroyed, he said.
Hospitals reported hundreds of corpses and indicated that the death toll could go much higher.
Egyptian meteorologists reported that an inch of rain fell on Cairo during a two-hour period Wednesday morning in the worst rainstorm since November, 1957, when three-quarters of an inch fell during a 24-hour period.
Heavy rainstorms are rare in most of Egypt, which draws its water from the Nile River that threads through a vast desert. Storm drains are virtually nonexistent in the capital and other large cities, and streets quickly became torrents of mud and rushing water up to 1 1/2 feet deep in places.
The hardest hit were the crowded alleyways of old Cairo, where at least nine houses collapsed in the district of Gamaliya, authorities said.
In the nearby marketplace of Muski in central Cairo, packed with stalls of cheap goods, an electrical short circuit sparked by the rain touched off a fire that destroyed 230 stalls, causing damage estimated at nearly $600,000.
The Egyptian Development Authority and the Ministry of International Cooperation were both inundated, and most schools, universities and other government offices were closed when students and employees found it impossible to traverse the streets.
Asyut Gov. Samih Saeed declared a state of emergency; the governorate of Asyut is one of Egypt's most sensitive areas because it is the stronghold of Islamic fundamentalist militants who have been seeking to bring down the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
Hundreds of residents displaced from their homes surrounded the governorate headquarters Wednesday, demanding lodging and assistance, according to news reports from southern Egypt.
Saeed said he had ordered immediate cash assistance for the affected villages, as well as the distribution of tents and blankets. He added that the government had called in all available security forces and physicians to help in the disaster.
News reports on Egyptian television and in the semiofficial daily newspaper, Al Ahram, said the Durunka fire was touched off when floodwaters built up against the ridge of mountains on the west side of the Nile Valley at Durunka and swept into a bridge, causing the bridge to collapse onto two fuel storage tanks at the Public Fuel Cooperative in Durunka.
"Huge amounts of water that were collected on the western mountain went down in terrible force toward the storage tanks, causing an electrical short that also caused a huge explosion in one of the tanks at 5:55 a.m.," Al Ahram reported in its early edition today.
The resulting fires apparently ignited fuel in a nearby pipeline, and floodwaters swept the burning fuel down into the village, igniting hundreds of homes along the way.
Witnesses said they awoke to the sound of a large explosion and waves of smoke that began to descend on the town of about 22,000 residents.
Raging floodwaters dragged bodies in their path, dumping some of them into a nearby irrigation canal and leaving others trapped in the smoking wreckage of their homes.
The thousands of people fleeing their homes blocked the entry of emergency vehicles into the disaster scene, preventing an early assault against the fire, which eventually burned for more than 12 hours, according to Egyptian news reports.
Eventually, firefighters turned off the fuel taps, but not before much of the village was in ruins. Authorities said the Salam Food Factory burned to the ground, with damages estimated at $23.9 million.
Nearby, flooding in the village of Menshaat el Arab destroyed every house in the village, along with the primary school and the village mosque. Five bodies were found in the rubble.
As statements of sympathy poured in to Mubarak from Arab leaders, there were already recriminations about the oil fire disaster, with at least one member of the president's ruling National Democratic Party criticizing the government for building the oil storage facility so close to a populated area.
"The government failed us when it put up this depot close to where people live," Mohammed Abdel Mohsen Saleh, a Durunka resident and NDP member, told reporters on the scene.
The nine oil tanks in Durunka held about 15,000 tons of petroleum as strategic reserves for the army.