Taiwan gas explosions: 12,000 evacuees return to their homes

Most of the four ruptured street sections in the densely populated district of Kaohsiung had been declared safe from further explosions by afternoon, a city spokesman said.

Wally Santana/AP
Damaged vehicles lie in the rubble after massive gas explosions in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Aug. 1. A series of five explosions about midnight Thursday and early Friday ripped through Taiwan's second-largest city, killing scores of people, Taiwan's National Fire Agency said Friday.

City streets destroyed, transformed into trenches strewn with dirt, ripped pieces of pipe and jagged blocks of concrete. Broken fire trucks turned upside down, twisted soot-covered cars and motorcycles, ripped advertising signs.

The site of underground gas explosions in Taiwan's second-largest city is a scene of destruction. The blasts hit a densely populated district where petrochemical companies operate pipelines in the city of Kaohsiung. The streets were busier than normal because people were visiting a nearby night market. Firefighters who went to investigate the early reports of a gas leak were among the dead and injured.

The blasts affected an area of 2 to 3 square kilometers.

The 12,000 people who fled in fear of more gas pipeline explosions in Taiwan's second-largest city returned to their homes Friday after authorities said there was no more risk of blasts like the series that ripped apart streets overnight, killing 26 people and injuring 267.

Five explosions ripped through four streets starting around midnight 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, meter-deep (yard-deep) trenches down the middle of roads.

Many of the injured were 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 were believed caused by leaking propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, said Chang Jia-juch, director of the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Center. Chang said the cause and location of the leaks were unknown.

The exploded gas line belongs to government-owned CPC Corp., which told The Associated Press 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 cause 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 neighborhoods 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 center spent much of Friday trying to prevent secondary explosions. With the risk easing after mid-day, all but 300 of an original 12,000 evacuees had left emergency shelters and just one of an initial nine remained open, Ting said.

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu had gone on television urging people to take shelter until their neighborhoods were declared safe.

However, disaster officials were still conducting safety checks on some of the damaged homes before letting occupants back in.

Many of the dead and injured had been outside near a night market and were hit by flying rubble or cars, a police officer at the scene said. Police and firefighters suffered burns while trying to control blazes.

Area resident Chang Bi-chu, 63, described seeing dead bodies along the roadside. "I felt really bad. After all, there just was the air crash in Penghu last week."

Chang said the front door of her home was warped by the explosion and power was cut, leaving the house without lights or fans in the steamy weather.

"We don't have money to stay in a hotel and they're all booked anyway," she said.

Power supplies to 12,000 people in the area were severed, and 23,600 lost gas service. Some power had been restored to homes in the area by late Friday.

Backhoes pulled upended fire trucks and other vehicles from the rubble much of Friday while paramedics with rescue dogs combed the neighborhood for survivors.

Rescuers expected to find few, if any, people in the rubble because no buildings collapsed, said Hsu Lee-hao, a national emergency operations center official.

Large trenches edged with pavement slabs torn apart by the blasts dominated a 2-kilometer area that was cordoned off most of Friday. Burned walls and toppled shop signs lined Sanduo Road, near an elementary school. Television images showed one car vaulted onto a building roof in a particularly powerful blast.

Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah announced that all flags would fly at half-staff for three days from Aug. 5 in honor of the victims of both the Penghu air crash and Kaohsiung explosion. President Ma Ying-jeou paused at a scheduled event Friday morning to call for a minute of silence.

Much of the drama was captured on closed-circuit television, dashboard cameras and cellphones.

A video showed an explosion rippling through the floor of a motorcycle parking area, hurling concrete and other debris through the air. Cellphone video captured the sound of an explosion as flames leapt at least 9 meters (30 feet) into the air.

One witness said he tried to help before paramedics arrived.

"I was on my scooter just across the street, suddenly there was the explosion, a white car was blown toward me, and I saw the driver trapped in the car," said Wong Zhen-yao, 49, owner of a car repair shop in the disaster area.

"There was still fire nearby. I tried to pull the guy out but couldn't," he said. "Only after the smoke was gone did I realize there was such a big hole in the middle of the road."

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