The deadly oil pipeline explosion on Friday in the eastern port city of Qingdao came as a bitter reminder of another dreadful tragedy in 1989, when successive explosions of five oil tanks killed 19 people and injured another 78.
The series of explosions 24 years ago took place in Huangdao district when one of five oil tanks was hit by lightning. Within hours, a fire spread and led to explosions of the other four tanks, all of which were located within 1.5 square kilometres and were being used to store more than 40,000 tonnes of crude oil in total, according to a report carried by Caixin Magazine‘s website.
The area soon turned into a blazing inferno as the fire engulfed nearby roads and houses. Firefighters trying to stop the fire from spreading after the first explosion were not able to evacuate in time before the other tanks exploded. The fire lasted for more than four days and nights before it was put out, and 19 firefighters were killed trying to tackle the blaze.
The report in Caixin Magazine blamed poor infrastructure quality, the overcrowded layout of flammable facilities and inadequate emergency responses for the 1989 tragedy that took place in the industrial district of Huangdao, the same area as last week’s oil pipeline explosion, which killed at least 52 people and injured more than 130, with another 11 missing.
On Monday, China's top official in charge of industrial safety blamed last Friday's deadly explosions in Huangdao on "human error," indicating that the central government may severely punish Sinopec, the state-owned oil giant who operates the pipeline, as well as local officials at the end of the investigation.
“This is a very serious accident caused by human error,” Xinhua quoted Yang Dongliang, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, as saying at an investigation meeting he chaired in Qingdao on Monday morning.
The explosions on November 22 has killed 55 people so far, with 136 injured and nine people still missing, state media said. In another sign of how seriously Beijing is treating the accident, President Xi Jinping flew to Qingdao on Sunday and visited those injured in the explosions in a local hospital.
Yang detailed a list of problems exposed uncovered in the initial investigation, including poor designs of the pipeline and local drainage networks, negligence on the part of safety officials, bad maintenance of the oil pipeline, as well as officials' failure to seal off the affected area and evacuate residents after they detected the leak, seven hours before the explosions.
On Sunday evening, a spokesperson for Sinopec had sought to shift the blame in an interview with the state broadcaster China National Radio.
“It’s not the oil pipeline that exploded… The oil and gas leaked into the city’s drainage system, for about 12 minutes before the leak was plugged. Then [we] rushed for maintenance and reported it to the police. All went smoothly,” he said. “[But] around 10.30am [on Friday], the city’s drainage system exploded.”
The spokesperson also said a cleanup operation was underway to remove crude oil that had leaked into Jiaozhou Bay and would not lead to marine pollution.
In fact, marine ecology in Jiaozhou Bay was already destroyed in the accident 24 years ago. More than 600 tonnes of crude oil ended up in the sea, resulting in severe pollution of 102 kilometres of coastal line, killing millions of fishes in the bay area, according to Caixin Magazine.
Video: Qingdao pipeline leak explosion