Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Rescuers race to stem gas leak

TRAGEDY IN CHINA Officials branded the region around a gas explosion that has killed at least 200 people a `death zone,' as toxic gas continued to poison the air

REUTERS , BEIJING

A gas blow-out in southwest China turned an area of 25km2 into a death zone, killing nearly 200 people as they slept or scrambled to escape, government officials and state media said yesterday.

Rescue workers raced to stem the foul-smelling toxic fumes from the natural gas well which was being drilled in mountains 340km northeast of Chongqing city when Tuesday night's disaster occurred.

Xinhua said an operation to cut off the gas planned for yesterday had been postponed for 24 hours. Eighty-two separate rescue teams scoured surrounding villages for survivors. Dozens of fire trucks and ambulances were standing by.

"They have not found any more dead bodies today," a county government official said.

State television showed flames spewing from the well, illuminating fog-shrouded mountains, after the poison gas was deliberately ignited to consume it.

Newspapers showed pictures of children in hospital, their eyes sealed shut by the gas, and of stricken livestock littering the roads.

The Chongqing Morning Post quoted one survivor who lived within 10m of the well, 41-year-old peasant Liao Yong. He described a hissing black mist of gas which chased him as he fled in his farm vehicle -- with more than 20 relatives and neighbors hanging on.

After driving several kilometers, Liao no longer sensed the strange odor of the fumes and stopped his vehicle to look back, the paper said. "But within just minutes, Liao Yong again caught whiff of the smell of stinky duck eggs ... and hastily drove on."

But at least 191 others were killed.

"The poisonous gas hovering in the air made an area of 25km2 a death zone as many villagers were intoxicated by the fumes in their sleep," the China Daily newspaper said.

"Most of the bodies were found at home or by the roadside or in a valley," the county official said by telephone.

"Chickens, horses and pigs were also killed."

About 41,000 people, most of them farmers, were evacuated from villages within a radius of 5km from the remote accident site, where the temperature at night drops to freezing.

About 740 people were still being treated in hospital while outpatients with ailments such as conjunctivitis and other eye problems numbered nearly 10,000, the official said.

The accident was considered to be "the worst [of its kind] in China's history", the China Daily said.

It was the second time in three years that disaster put a damper on China's Christmas, increasingly a day for revelry in big cities.

At least 309 people, many young people at a Christmas Day disco party, were killed when fire swept through a commercial center in the central city of Luoyang in 2000.

It also marred the 110th anniversary of the birth of Communist China's deified late leader, Mao Zedong, on yesterday.

When the well erupted, it spewed a high concentration of natural gas and sulphurated hydrogen 30m into the air.

The fumes spread quickly to nearby areas and caused "mass casualties," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Wu Jianong, vice mayor of Chongqing, as saying, adding that poor communications and transport facilities hampered rescue efforts.

Sulphurated hydrogen is a toxic gas that can poison or kill people who inhale 760 to 1,000 milligrams per cubic meter, Xinhua said. Only after the gas was set ablaze were rescue workers able to enter the area, vice mayor Wu said.

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