The death toll from the gas explosions that ripped through Greater Kaohsiung’s Cianjhen District (前鎮) on Thursday and Friday rose to 28 yesterday, with the number of injured at 286 as efforts to find two missing firemen continued after rain on Friday night made rescue workers’ task more difficult by flooding the trenches.
One of the bodies recovered yesterday amid torn-up slabs of pavement and debris was found in the morning under a crushed scooter, and later identified as a 75-year-old man surnamed Lin (林), who was reportedly driving past the site of the blasts on his scooter when the explosions occurred.
Another body was found in the afternoon, reportedly still with his scooter helmet on, and had not yet been identified as of press time.
Photo: Wang Min-wei, Taipei Times
While the search and rescue work continued, efforts to determine the cause of the explosions stalled amid finger-pointing among the parties involved.
The Greater Kaohsiung Government’s Environmental Protection Bureau said that the source of the explosions was propene — a byproduct of oil refining and natural gas processing also known as propylene and widely used in the petrochemical industry — and said LCY Chemical Corp (李長榮化工), which operates a pipeline carrying propene in the area that was in use on the night of the explosions, should be held responsible.
The corporation said it was not necessarily reponsible, with chairperson Bowei Lee (李謀偉) saying on Friday night that it had not yet been confirmed whether the accident was due to a natural gas leak or propene, adding that “once the cause of the accident and accountability is made clear, LCY Chemical Corp will definitely not shirk its responsibilities.”
Company spokesperson Abby Pan (潘俐霖) was overwhelmed by media inquiries yesterday at a press conference the firm held to “announce important information,” it said.
However, Pan repeated Lee’s statement from a day earlier and said that the company would comply with the government’s instructions in the investigation of the accident.
Pan was not able to say why LCY did not report to the authorities when it failed to receive the full amount of propene it was meant to get from the China General Terminal and Distribution Corp (華運倉儲) on Thursday night.
Bureau Director-General Derek Chen (陳金德) had revealed on Friday that close to four tonnes of propene had been lost.
Chen reiterated yesterday that LCY should have issued warnings after realizing that some propene had likely leaked.
“For a total of about 132 minutes when the delivery was being carried out that night, the transfer was flawed. We estimate that about 10 tonnes [of the fuel gas] leaked during that period,” Chen said.
Also yesterday, China Petrochemical Development Corp (CPDC, 中石化), whose presence at the emergency response meeting yesterday was its first, told the Greater Kaohsiung Government that there was still propene left in its pipelines and the company was only just starting to empty the channels.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) was astonished and furious at the news, saying CPDC had been putting first-line rescuers at risk the entire time.
The city government has come under criticism over allegations that it did not react fast enough to the disaster, with critics pointing out that residents had reported gas leaks by 8:46pm on Thursday night, more than three hours before the first blasts rocked the municipality at 11:59pm.
In response, the city government said it had done everything it could at the time.
“We received reports from the public about leaks of an unknown gas at 8:46pm and immediately dispatched 85 firefighters and rescue workers to the reported sites across the city. While we did not know what the gas was, firefighters arriving on the scene immediately began spraying water to keep the temperature down and dilute it,” Greater Kaohsiung Fire Bureau Director Chen Hung-lung (陳虹龍) said.
“We contacted the [Greater Kaohsiung] Environmental Protection Bureau and Public Works Bureau for a joint operation to find the source of the leak,” he said.
He said that at 9:50pm, he contacted all the companies that have underground pipelines running through the city — including CPC Corp, Taiwan (台灣中油), CPDC, Taiwan Power Co (台電) and the Taiwan Railways Administration to check their pipes — and at 10:40pm, he called CPC and CPDC, asking them to suspend all pipeline transports.
“We only confirmed that the leaked gas was propene at 11:20pm and it was then that a CPC representative told us that they were allowing LCY to use one of CPC’s pipes to transport propene and the explosions happened not long after that,” he said.
As for the criticism that the city government did not evacuate residents immediately after receiving the gas leak reports, he said both Lingya (苓雅) and Cianjhen districts have very high population densities, so “the streets would have been jammed had we ordered an evacuation, which could have lead to more casualties had the blasts happened when the streets were crowded with people trying to evacuate.”
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