Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Evacuees return after gas blasts

Vehicles lie on a destroyed street still burning following multiple explosions from an underground gas leak in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (AP)
Flames shoot into the streets of Kaohsiung (AP)
Vehicles lie in a destroyed street following multiple explosions from the underground gas leak in Kaohsiung (AP)

Around 12,000 people have returned to their homes in Taiwan's second largest city after gas explosions killed 26 people and injured 267 others.

Clean-up work is under way in the 1 square mile area, where investigators are turning to the task of determining the cause of the blasts, the city's worst such disaster in 16 years.

Most of the four ruptured street sections in the densely populated district of Kaohsiung had been declared safe from further explosions, a city spokesman said. A fire that burned through the night had also been put out.

Five explosions ripped through four streets starting at around midnight on Thursday, catapulting cars into the air and blasting cement rubble at passers-by, many of whom were out late because of a nearby night market.

That came about three hours after a gas leak had been reported on Kaixuan Road, but emergency services had been unable to locate the source.

Four firefighters were among the victims and two were missing, while at least six fire trucks were flung into the rubble. The blasts sent flames shooting into the sky and hurled concrete through the air, leaving broad, trenches down the middle of roads.

Many of the injured are still receiving medical treatment. The disaster was Taiwan's second in as many weeks following the crash of a TransAsia Airways prop jet on the island of Penghu on July 23 that killed 48 people and injured 10.

"Last night around midnight, the house started shaking and I thought it was a huge earthquake, but when I opened the door, I saw white smoke all over and smelled gas," said Chen Qing-tao, 38, who lives a short distance from the devastation.

The explosions are believed to be caused by leaking propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, said Chang Jia-juch, director of the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Centre. Chang said the cause and location of the leaks are unknown.

The exploded gas line belongs to government-owned CPC, which said there were no signs of problems before the explosions.

Propene is mainly used for making the plastic polypropylene used in a wide variety of packaging, caps and films. It can be detected by its mildly unpleasant smell.

The city will do a formal probe on what caused the explosions, said city spokesman Ting Yun-kung.

"We haven't started a formal investigation yet, just a partial one," he said. "A full one will take a few days."

Industrial-use pipelines run through the Kaohsiung's residential neighbourhoods because industry preceded the construction of housing, Ting said. The port city contains much of Taiwan's heavy industry, especially petrochemicals.

Video from broadcasters showed residents searching for victims overnight in shattered storefronts and rescuers placing injured people on stretchers. Numerous fires sent smoke pouring into the night sky above the Chian-Chen district, where factories operate near low-rise residential buildings.

The government's disaster response centre spent much of Friday trying to prevent secondary explosions. With the risk easing after midday, all but 300 of an original 12,000 evacuees had left emergency shelters and just one of an initial nine remained open.

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