Mon, Dec 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Rescue workers clean up `death zone' in China

REUTERS , BEIJING

Rescue workers began the grim task of cleaning up a vast "death zone" in southwest China yesterday after a toxic cloud of natural gas killed nearly 200 people, devastating villages and poisoning farms.

Paramilitary police were clearing away hundreds of animals killed by the huge cloud of gas that swept across a 25km2 area on Tuesday when a natural gas well burst, the official Xinhua news agency said.

More than 100 medical workers were disinfecting eight villages, testing drinking water and poisoned crops close to the site of the leak, a natural gas field in Chongqing municipality, said Zhang Mingkui, director of the Kaixian County Bureau of Environmental Protection.

About 42,000 people were evacuated, some of whom began returning to the area over the weekend. Newspapers and Internet portals published pictures of villagers standing in open trucks on their way home but locals whose houses lie within 5km of the leak were still not allowed to return.

"I want to clean up my house and count my losses because we can't smell the fumes now," the Xinhua quoted an unnamed farmer as saying.

Workers poured hundreds of cubic meters of mud and cement into the 400m-deep well in Kaixian county in Chongqing on Saturday, plugging the mix of natural gas and sulphurated hydrogen that caused acid burns to the eyes, skin and lungs of victims.

At least 198 people died from the fumes and a total of 10,175 people were either hospitalized or treated and discharged. Nearly 80 people were still in serious condition.

Large numbers of pigs, cattle and ducks were also killed.

"It was an accident of rare severity," the People's Daily quoted Huang Yi, a spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety, as saying. "We must learn a lesson from it."

State-run China National Petroleum Corp, which operates the gas field and is the parent of listed oil major Petrochina, will pay compensation to villagers, state television quoted company vice president Su Shulin as saying.

The well blast was China's second Christmas disaster in three years.

At least 309 people, many of them 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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