100 killed in huge blast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 1996, 12:00am

AT least 100 people died when a cache of illegally stored dynamite exploded in southern China, devastating an apartment block and its surrounding buildings.

Officials said hundreds more people were hurt in Wednesday night's huge blast, caused by about 10 tonnes of military explosive that was being stored in the basement of the five-storey block in the Hunan provincial city of Shaoyang.

Television reports claimed the dynamite belonged to a resident of the building, He Geng.

He ran an illegal explosives firm and had taken the large consignment in lieu of payment from a hard-up debtor. He is believed to have died in the blast.

Xinhua (the New China News Agency) said the explosion was caused 'by workers who were handling explosives in a way that violated laws and regulations'.

The blast hit the town of 200,000 just before 8 pm.

Many survivors were crushed and unconscious and suffered broken bones, doctors said, while others were hurt in a rain of bricks, metal and glass thrown up by the force of the blast.

'It was terrifying,' a rescue co-ordinator in Chengnan Town, the suburb of Shaoyang where the explosion hit.

'At first we thought it was an earthquake. The entire street was levelled.' As many as a dozen children playing in a nearby video game centre were believed to be among the victims.

Television footage showed hundreds of soldiers, police and volunteers clawing by hand and with hand tools and bulldozers through the rubble, while scores of doctors were on hand to treat survivors.

All that remained of the apartment block was a crater 30 metres across and 10 metres deep, the official Hunan Daily reported yesterday.

According to Xinhua, the official death toll was 77, but workers at the scene yesterday said at least 100 bodies had now been found.

'Workers are still digging through the rubble and expect to find more bodies. We do not expect to find more survivors,' said one rescuer.

'The death toll will rise above 100.' He said setting a final tally was difficult because many migrant workers living in the area had not registered their residency.

The Mayor of Shaoyang said rescuers found more than 10 bodies yesterday, while the city's propaganda chief Sun Xianliang said 95 people were confirmed dead.

At least 18 of the 120 people who were in hospital had died, according to a Red Cross official.

Five hospitals were needed to cope with the number of injured, according to rescue workers.

More than 80 were taken to Zhong Xin Hospital, the biggest and best equipped in the town.

'Some of the injured are still in critical condition and have been under emergence medical treatment,' said a hospital spokesman.

However, doctors at another hospital expected few of their injured to die.

'Most of our 80 patients are now out of danger,' said a doctor.

One of the first officials to reach the blast site described a scene of complete carnage, with bodies scattered over a wide area.

'People were screaming and many of the bodies were impossible to identify,' he said.

According to the Hunan Daily, everything within 100 metres of the apartment block was flattened, including the homes of 40 families.

Windows were shattered in buildings up to two kilometres from the scene of the explosion.

Deputy-Governor of Shaoyang City, Zhou bohua, was at the scene directing rescue efforts. He also visited victims of the disaster in hospital.

Provincial experts had joined an inquiry into what the Hunan Daily called an 'extraordinarily serious accident'.

A municipal official denied the blast was anything more than a tragic accident. Police were still investigating the cause, he said, although he admitted it could have been the result of negligence.

'Up until now, there is no evidence that the disaster has anything to do with revenge, grievances or involves any political motives. No suspect has been arrested,' he said.

Television news said investigators were still trying to determine what sparked the explosion, which cut water and electricity.

It is not uncommon for private mining families in China to store explosives and detonators in their homes, contributing to a nationwide series of mining accidents. Hunan is dotted by private mines.