Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Emergency workers cap toxic gas well in China

INVISIBLE KILLER Most of the nearly 200 people killed by a poisonous gas cloud spewing from the well were asleep in their beds, unaware of the deadly intruder


A poisoned villager, second right,is rescued and treated in Kaixian Hospital, northeast of Chongqing, on Friday


Chinese emergency workers sealed off a natural gas well yesterday, capping the source of a toxic gas cloud that killed nearly 200 people and poisoned thousands in southwestern Chongqing municipality.

Dressed in special breathing gear, a crew of 80 technicians began pouring hundreds of cubic meters of mud into the well, plugging a deadly flow of natural gas and sulphurated hydrogen that turned surrounding farmland into a death zone late on Tuesday.

"The capping of the Chuandongbei well has been completed successfully," the official Xinhua news agency said soon after the operation began.

In separate reports, Xinhua said air pressure around the cap had begun to drop 10 minutes after the capping procedure began. After the well was filled with mud, layers of cement would be added.

At least 198 people, mostly villagers, and large numbers of livestock were killed after the blow-out, which spewed a poisonous gas cloud into the night sky. Xinhua said the toll had risen from the earlier reported 191 but gave no explanation.

More than 40,000 people were evacuated from villages within a radius of 5km from the remote site of the gas field, operated by state-run China National Petroleum Corp, parent of listed oil major Petrochina.

More than 9,000 people poisoned to varying degrees filled local hospitals. Rescue teams scoured surrounding villages, finding corpses strewn on roadsides. Others died as they slept.

State media have been full of photographs of children in hospital, their eyes sealed shut by the gas, and of dead livestock lying on village streets.

Rescue operations, delayed by a lack of protective equipment, ended yesterday morning ahead of the capping operation.

The successful capping of the 400m gas well meant a recurrence of the blow-out was unlikely, Xinhua said. Dangerous substances lingering in the air would be cleared in an anti-chemical operation, the agency said but gave no details.

Once the environment had been declared hazard-free, local residents who had been evacuated were expected to be allowed to return home following an observation period, it said.

An investigation into the cause of one of China's deadliest disasters was continuing. It was the second time in three years that disaster had 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.

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