A van packed with pressurised gas tanks and bottles full of petrol caught fire and ploughed into pedestrians in front of a Starbucks in Shanghai on Friday, leaving at least 18 people injured, authorities and witnesses said.
The incident occurred at People’s Park in the heart of the Chinese financial hub during morning rush hour, when crowds of people were on their way to work.
A Shanghai police statement said the incident has been ruled a traffic accident saying it occurred when flammable materials inside the car burst into flames, causing the van’s 40-year-old driver to lose control of the vehicle.
It said the driver, who was seriously injured, had been smoking a cigarette and using his phone while driving the van, which contained seven gas tanks used to fuel stoves and three plastic bottles filled with petrol.
Zhang Sai, a security guard at an adjacent building, said the van was on fire when it veered out of control and mounted the curb near a cross-walk, striking pedestrians and sending others scurrying to get out of the way.
“It happened around 8:50 am (0050 GMT). The van was on fire before it crashed on the sidewalk,” Zhang said.
Xu Xin, a 23-year-old restaurant employee, came upon the immediate aftermath during his morning jog to find injured people on the ground and bystanders calling emergency services.
“The fire department carried gas tanks from the van, like those used in restaurants,” Xu said.
Nine people were still in hospital as of Friday evening, including the driver, who worked for a local metals company, the police statement said.
Journalists who arrived at the site found it had been quickly cleared by authorities.
A small police presence remained on hand standing watch. Damage to fencing in front of the Starbucks could be seen, but otherwise there was little evidence of an accident.
However, amateur video clips shot earlier and which circulated on Chinese social media showed several people sprawled on the pavement receiving medical treatment from fire and rescue personnel.
Other images showed a fire ablaze inside the van, which had come to a stop in front of a tree near the entrance to the Starbucks.
After the incident, the coffee shop was locked and a notice was taped to the door saying it had been closed, advising customers to go to other nearby outlets.
In 2013, two tourists were killed when a car rammed into bystanders on Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square before bursting into flames.
Three attackers also died in the incident, which Beijing blamed on separatists from the restive western region of Xinjiang.