Thousands hurt by gas blast, fumes in China

Slow response criticized after explosion of well

December 27, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WANZHOU, China - Rescue workers searched for survivors as well as more bodies yesterday in the wake of a poisonous cloud from a natural gas explosion that left what state news media described as a "death zone."

More than 40,000 people were evacuated, and witnesses described fields containing the lifeless bodies of people and animals.

State television showed evacuees crowding into emergency shelters throughout this mountainous section of southwestern China. In makeshift clinics, doctors - many from surrounding cities - were treating villagers who lived near the explosion site for poisoning, burns and respiratory problems.

The death toll remained at 191, though that figure could rise as rescue workers search the remote terrain around the Chuandongbei natural gas field where the explosion occurred.

One local health official, Zheng Qingshu, said about 10,000 people had sought medical help and nearly 1,000 remained hospitalized, including 77 in critical condition.

"Many of doctors have been working straight for three days and three nights since the accident," said Zheng, the deputy health director in Kaixian County, where many evacuees were taken.

The explosion occurred Tuesday night in the town of Gaoqiao, apparently after drillers at the natural gas field hit a pressurized deposit of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide, state news media said. Initial reports played down the accident and mentioned only eight deaths.

But by Thursday, officials were mounting a sweeping response as the death toll shot upward.

The explosion was one the worst in a seemingly incessant string of recent industrial accidents in China, prompting questions about the speed of the rescue efforts.

One government official said the high death toll highlighted why China needs to institute a nationwide emergency response system.

"If we had the system, the rescue work for the gas field blowout could have been carried out more quickly, and the casualties would have been reduced greatly," Huang Yi, a spokesman for the State Administration on Work Safety, told the state news media yesterday. Huang also called on natural gas- and oil-drilling companies to strengthen supervision at work sites.

The initial reports of only eight dead raised the possibility that local officials had intentionally tried to prevent the true scope of the accident from becoming public. Those early reports also said the explosion had been quickly brought under control.

In fact, the well continued to burn yesterday. Officials planned to cap it with concrete today, official news media reported.

Zheng, the health official, said eight people did die in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, but the concentration of poisonous gas was initially so heavy that rescue teams were prevented from moving in and determining the number of dead.

He said the rescue process could begin in earnest only Wednesday, explaining why the death toll spiked Thursday.

"When the accident happened, people heard a big bang," Zheng said. "People saw natural gas firing upward. Many people just fell to the ground."

The official English-language China Daily described a 10-square-mile region around the explosion site as a "death zone" and reported that some villagers had died in their sleep from the plume of poison. One local official told the newspaper that bodies had been found in fields and on roadsides, and that horses, pigs, dogs and livestock had also perished.

Children and the elderly were said to account for many of the dead. China Daily reported that 39 children under the age of 10 were killed, while 46 men and women 60 or older also succumbed. Only two of the dead worked at the natural gas field. The rest were farmers and family members who lived in surrounding villages.

One villager, Liao Yong, who lived only a few hundred yards from the drilling site, said he was about to go to bed when the explosion shook his home.

Liao told state news media that although he had smelled the gas he fled only when he heard someone shout, "Run away! The gas well blew out!"

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