Taiwan’s second largest city was ripped open by massive gas explosions Thursday evening, killing at least 28, injuring almost 260, triggering massive fires and creating large gouges through a number of the city’s boulevards. The disaster in the southern city of Kaohsiung’s Cianjhen district was caused by a gas leak and was one of the worst gas explosions in the country’s history.
Roads were in flames, cars overturned, homes collapsed and ambulances could not gain access. An introductory investigation showed that the leak may have emanated from an underground propene pipeline owned by LCY Chemical Corporation, which has pledged to cooperate with the investigation into the incident.
Propene is a highly flammable petrochemical used to create either polyesters (used in clothing) or polypropylene (used in a wide variety of packaging). Kaohsiung’s petrochemical complex is one of Taiwan’s largest and many of the pipelines that run in and out of the complex run beneath the densely populated city. The pipelines were installed before the area became so densely populated.
Cars were found on the roofs of multi-story buildings after the blasts. Residents reported a fireball 10 floors high that was “very, very loud” and a second blast two to three minutes later.
The cabinet of Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou has formed a task force and Ma promised a fast investigation into the cause. Some Kaohsiung residents pointed fingers at local officials for the travesty. Lin Chung-hua insisted that “if they had turned off the pipelines right away” the explosions would not have happened. This was echoed by a restaurant owner who declined to provide his name.
Kaohsiung’s fire department shut off the supply of gas into the pipeline shortly after the explosions and the Taiwan Emergency Operations Center reported that the situation had been contained. A spokesman for the city said that the chance of additional explosions is “extremely slim at the moment.” The center also reported that 111 of the injured have already been discharged from hospitals while two or more people were still missing. Among those killed were four firefighters and police officers.
More than 1,600 military personnel have been deployed to assist in the rescue activities and the city of Kaohsiung has set up an emergency center. The rescue operation has already seen tens of millions of New Taiwan dollars pledged to the rescue operation from companies that saw their stock values increase more than 2 percent after their contributions were announced.
Propene is virtually odorless so officials are puzzled about the source of the scent. Residents contacted the fire department as early as 8:46 p.m. Thursday, reporting the scent of gas and of seeing smoke coming from drains. Johnson Shen, who was on his motorcycle before the blasts, said there was “a very strong gas smell on the road. It smelt like the gas we use at home for cooking.”
Flags on the China-controlled island will be at half-mast the next three days. Just over a week ago, another deadly disaster hit Taiwan when a Trans-Asia flight crashed into a neighborhood in Taiwan’s Penghu Island, killing at least 48.
By Gregory Baskin