Kaohsiung gas explosion kills 26, injures more than 260
Investigators look at five companies owning gas or propene pipelines
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-08-01 02:41 PM
TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – A series of midnight gas line explosions under downtown Kaohsiung streets killed at least 26 people and left more than 260 injured early Friday.

Long stretches of streets caved in while cars and rubble were strewn around in a series of explosions which began at around 11:59 p.m. Thursday in the city’s Chienchen and Lingya districts. Several fire trucks were thrown sideways into the holes, while at least four firefighters were among the dead. Cable stations compared the scene to a war zone after heavy bombing. The collapsed roads looked like 5-meter-wide trenches or canyons, with destruction apparent over a length of 6 kilometer, reports said.

Rescue workers spent hours trying to douse the flames and looking for missing persons under the rubble. Schools and offices in the area were ordered closed for the day, with several streets in the area cordoned off.

By Friday noon, the official toll had risen to 25 dead and 267 injured. Late in the afternoon, one person succumbed to his injuries at the local Veterans General Hospital, bringing the death toll up to 26.

Dozens of the injured were in a critical condition, hospitals said, while two senior fire fighters were reported missing. During the afternoon, signs of life were found under one of the roads, leading rescue workers to believe they had located at least one missing fireman, reports said. The Ministry of Education said the dead included one high-school girl, while 16 students were among the injured.

Because of the presence of a number of industrial pipelines in the area, suspicions arose that a propene line owned by the LCY Group might have been behind the disaster, but the company denied the allegations. At 4 a.m. its representatives and city inspectors checked the propene lines, which proved to be still intact, the company said. In addition, the highly flammable propene did not have a smell, which went counter to reports by residents that they had smelled gas before the explosions, LCY said. The company also claimed that the diameter of the ruptured line was different from its own.

Other major petrochemical companies, such as CPC Corporation, Taiwan and the Formosa Plastics Group also denied responsibility for the explosions. There were unconfirmed reports that irregularly low pressure had been noticed in a pipeline leading to an industrial zone before 9 p.m. Thursday, but CPC and the other companies denied knowing anything about such a problem. Members of the public also spoke of a strong smell of gas in the area around 8 p.m. Thursday.

The environmental services said that by noon, there were no signs of any more chemical or toxic substances leaking into the air in the area.

Prosecutors had reportedly found the maps with the location of five pipelines, two carrying propene and three gas, and were visiting five companies to find data about the recent situation of the pipelines, reports said. Information about road works over the past three days was also being looked at in case there was a connection with gas leaks.

Several video recordings of the calamity emerged during the day, showing columns of fire rising from intersections as filmed from approaching cars. As drivers turned away to find an alternative route, more fire spouted out of the ground in front of them.

Motorcycles, rocks and even cars were catapulted on to rooftops, reports said. Glass windows up to the third floor of buildings were completely blown out.

All through the day, military crews wearing face masks worked through the rubble to try and find survivors or bodies. A total of 2,400 firefighters, police and military had been mobilized in several regions, the government said. The authorities called for volunteers with knowledge of water and electricity to repair utility services to the stricken area.

Supermarkets donated water and bread and a hotel offered free temporary accommodation to residents rendered homeless by the disaster.

The city government turned ten schools into shelters for 1,200 displaced area residents. A shortage of cell phones and battery chargers was soon ended thanks to the generosity of the public, reports said.

One exit of the Sun Yat-sen Freeway was closed, but train and mass rapid transit traffic in the Kaohsiung area were not affected. At one time, more than 20,000 households lost electricity, but the number was cut to 7,500 by early afternoon, reports said. A total of 23,600 households were without gas as a result of the calamity.

Messages of support and pledges of financial aid streamed in during the day, while top politicians from Mayor Chen Chu to China’s President Xi Jinping offered their condolences. Special activities across the country, including a fireworks festival along the river in Taipei, were canceled in a sign of solidarity with the victims. President Ma Ying-jeou maintained one minute of silence before a meeting with indigenous leaders.

Premier Jiang Yi-huah visited the Kaohsiung City emergency center and the site of the disaster in Chen’s company during the afternoon. He ordered flags on official buildings around the country flown at half-mast August 5-7. Some of the injured at a local hospital also received his visit.

Top corporations and business leaders donated a total of up to NT$269 million (US$8.9 million) to fund the rescue work and supplies for the victims, reports said. The Legislative Yuan gave NT$2.5 million (US$83,000) and top entertainers also joined in. The Kaohsiung City Government’s Social Affairs Bureau opened a special account for donations.

The disaster in Kaohsiung led to increased nervousness about problems with gas lines elsewhere. Cable stations reported tough safety measures surrounding an apparent gas leak on Taipei’s Songjiang Road during the afternoon. New Taipei City, Keelung and Chiayi City ordered reviews of the safety situation within their territories.

Experts said that in the case of gas explosions, parks and schools would be the safest locations to seek refuge because they usually did not have gas pipelines buried underneath. Gas lines were mostly to be found under major traffic arteries and less likely under narrow streets and alleys, the experts said.

Politicians and parties said they would call a temporary halt to the campaign for the November 29 regional and local elections.

The Kaohsiung gas explosions came shortly after 48 people died in the crash of a TransAsia Airways on its way from the southern port city to Makung in Penghu County on July 23.

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