Blast exposes mass incompetence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 December, 2003, 12:00am

Lack of a national emergency response system exacerbated toxic gas tragedy

With the lethal gas well capped in Chongqing and residents starting to drift back home to mourn the loss of their loved ones, central government officials have promised a thorough investigation and to punish those responsible for what officials admit is China's worst ever industrial accident.

Even without any hard data on hand, officials have readily conceded that the toll - 233 killed and more than 10,000 people sick - could have been smaller if an effective emergency rescue network had been in place.

Survivors' accounts and official media reports have so far revealed an extraordinary lack of safety precautions on the part of operators of the gas well, gross incompetence of local officials in the Chongqing municipality, and the central government's pathetically slow pace in setting up a national emergency response system.

According to survivors, China National Petroleum Corp - one of the world's largest oil producers, with annual sales of about 400 billion yuan - never bothered to educate residents nearby on how to prepare for the potential danger of a gas leak or explosion.

Initial reports have revealed that there was no safety equipment around - even at the well that released the poisonous gas.

Officials in Chongqing appeared to have been either ill-prepared or grossly incompetent.

Deputy Mayor Wu Jianong said rescue teams could not go into the affected area because of heavy concentrations of toxic gas until the morning of Christmas Day - more than 30 hours after the accident at about 10pm on December 23.

Local county officials said they did not have any masks on hand, which hampered the rescue efforts.

They told mainland press that another reason for the delay in the rescue was that the affected areas where many farmers died were remote and out of reach of modern communications.

The anti-chemical and biological units of the People's Liberation Army did not arrive at the scene until December 26, when most of the deaths had already occurred and survivors had already managed to escape.

There have been no reports or accounts of any helicopters being sent to rescue the poisoned victims.

Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety, has called for the establishment of a national early-warning and rapid-rescue system to deal with major industrial accidents.

This is not the first time such a call has been made. Soon after the central government's initial disastrous handling of the Sars crisis in March, calls were made to set up a national response system like that in the United States to deal rapidly and effectively with natural and man-made disasters.

It seems China needs a national response system which responds to, and also plans for, the mitigation of disasters.

Let's hope that the loss of 233 innocent lives will serve as a costly prompt for the central government to take some real action to set up such a system.