A fire sparked while a tank truck was unloading gas at a petrol station located at the 39th kilometre on the busy Via Salaria, near Borgo Quinzio, in the province of Rieti, some 80 kilometres from Rome. In less than half an hour, at approximately 1pm GMT, the vehicle exploded, injurying passersby and members of the fire brigades who were trying to put down the blaze. One of the two victims was a 50-year-old fireman, Stefano Colasanti, who was not a member of the brigades called to assist but selflessly stopped to help his colleagues evacuate the area while he was passing through.
Upon confirming his death, the Italian fire service spoke of the “endless pain” they were suffering from the loss.
The other casualty is a man who was hit by the blast after he stopped to check what was going on.
The 17 injured, including some of the emergency responders, were taken to five different hospitals by helicopter to avoid the traffic that started piling up as soon as part of the SS4 Via Salaria, a stretch of the Italian state highway linking Rome to the Adriatic sea, was closed and cordoned by police.
Davide Basilicata, mayor of the surrounding municipality of Fara in Sabina, said: “We are monitoring the situation, we have diverted the traffic and no one is allowed to go near the area of the blast.
“The situation is serious, firefighters keeps working at the scene.
“The whole area has been declared a red zone and remains off limits for now.”
Among the injured, three are deemed seriusly harmed.
And all of them have suffered blast shocks and burns.
Antonio Mannoni, police commissioner of Rieti, explained what happened to Italian news agency Ansa, saying: “I can confirm the outcome of the tragedy is heavy.
“The blast sparked from a tanker which was unloading gas at the petrol station.
“A first blaze had started earlier, and while firefighters were tackling it a second violent explosion took place.
“At the moment firefighters are cooling down the tanker to make sure it will no longer be a threat.”
Blood-chilling pictures show firefighters and police officers still working inside the cordoned area.
The explosion was “like an earthquake”, according to witnesses who spoke to local media.
Residents living nearby described to Italian daily Repubblica the blast, saying: “An enormous roar, never heard something like that, it sounded like an earthquake.”
Italy‘s deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini both offered their condolensces to the relatives of those who died.
Mr Di Maio wrote: “Thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims in Rieti and to the 17 injured.
“A special thought to the firefighters who were there to tackle the blaze and the ambulance crew who were helping the injured.”
Mr Salvini wrote: “A moved thought goes to the families of those who are suffering and a thank you, once again, to the heroic emergency crews.
“As a minister I’ll do everything I can to protect those who work for the safety of Italians, improving their working conditions and hiring more people.”