Grief and shock after huge gas explosions make Taiwan city look like a war zone
Survivors recall their horror when a series of explosions ripped up the neighbourhood in Kaohsiung, leaving hundreds dead or injured
Andrea Chen, Adrian Wan, Nectar Gan and Agencies
Minutes after firefighter Wang Chung said goodbye to his wife and two daughters over the phone on Thursday night, he received reports of white foam erupting from drains with a strong smell of gas.
The 50-year-old had promised to take their daughters out on Saturday before heading to the intersection of Kaisyuan and Erhseng roads in the Cianjhen district of Kaohsiung, local media reported.
At around midnight five explosions ripped through the densely populated residential area, hurling concrete and cars through the air and blasting long trenches in the streets. Fires spread quickly sending heavy smoke into the night sky.
Wang was found pinned beneath an overturned fire truck. He died in hospital.
"As a wife of a fireman, I know I have to be prepared for something like this any time," his wife Chen Yu-chih said. But the moment she saw Chen's body covered in a piece of white cloth in the hospital, she said her heart was torn apart. "He was to retire next year," she told Eastern Television in tears.
Wang was one of the 26 people who died in the explosions. Three other firefighters were killed after rushing to the neighbourhood and attempting to bring the fires under control.
A firefighter surnamed Lin from the city's fire bureau had just arrived at the scene of the first explosion when the district was rocked by subsequent blasts. When his colleagues managed to get back on their feet, they could only find a helmet with his name on it lying among the rubble, TV reports said.
Grieving firefighters were seen screaming in tears after removing the bodies from the explosion site, Eastern Television reported.
"Where am I supposed to start rescuing? It was so tragic," one firefighter said.
Another firefighter told the Taiwan-based Liberty Times that his colleagues could barely contain their tears when they found the bodies of colleagues, but they had no choice but to help injured residents first.
At least 267 people were reported injured in the explosions, believed to have been caused by a leak of propene, a petrochemical material for industrial use.
Local media said petrochemical companies had for years been operating pipelines alongside the sewer system in the district, which is filled with old low-rise apartment buildings.
A resident surnamed Fu living two streets away from the explosion site told Union Daily News the incident reminded her of the earthquake in central Taiwan 1999, one of the most catastrophic natural disasters on the island, that killed more than 2,000.
She ran onto the top of her building and saw the neighbourhood nearby covered in black smoke, the paper reported.
"It was the most horrifying moment I have ever experienced," a resident surnamed Chang living in the neighbourhood was quoted by the Union Daily News as saying. The flames were several floors high, Chang and other residents said.
Videos uploaded by witnesses showed streets collapsed following the explosions, and cars falling into the gaping holes. People said the noise of the explosions and the screams of the residents turned the area into something from a war zone.
A scooter was spotted hurled onto the top of a three-floor building in a video taken by witnesses and aired by Eastern Television.
Residents joined the rescuers to search for victims in shattered shopfronts and pulled injured people from the rubble on the road after the flames died down.
"I was on my scooter just across the street, suddenly there was the explosion, a white car was blown toward me, and I saw the driver trapped in the car," said Wong Zhen-yao, an owner of a car repair shop.
The 49-year-old said he tried to pull the man out but failed.
"Only after the smoke was gone did I realise there was such a big hole in the middle of the road."
After the fire was brought under control yesterday morning, the city was engulfed in grief with families and friends of the victims identifying the bodies in a funeral parlour.
"My sweetheart, my baby. Do you hear me? How could you leave me just like that?" cried the mother of fireman Huang Kuo-tung, a 46-year-old junior captain in the city's Lingya district, the United Daily News reported.
The devastated mother of a woman who died in the explosion, told Liberty Times her daughter was getting off work when the blast occurred. She told reporters in tears that her daughter's hand had been blown off, and her face was severely burnt.
A man, surnamed Wang, who lost his wife and teenage son recalled the tragic moment when the two were blown into the air.
Wang runs a noodle restaurant with his wife Chen Man-ching in downtown Kaohsiung. After they returned home from the restaurant on Thursday night, Chen suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to turn off the electricity in the restaurant. She dashed back with their son on her motorbike, promising to return soon.
Wang never saw them again. On their way to the restaurant, the explosion took their lives.