Taiwanese fearful after pipeline blasts

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Kaohsiung City

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The gas explosions ripped up metres of roads in the Cianjhen neighbourhood of Kaohsiung

The scene at Sanduo No 1 Road near Kaisuan Road - one of the worst affected areas from the series of explosions that ripped through a neighbourhood in southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung City - looks as if a monster underground had suddenly awakened.

Long stretches of the streets were torn up, with the underground trenches, pipelines and cables exposed. A creek from the broken water pipes ran through one trench.

Windows in many homes and businesses facing the street were completely shattered. The chairs and perming equipment of a second-storey hair salon were there for all to see as not a shard was left of the salon's large glass window.

Nearby residents still in shock over the blasts, which happened late on Thursday night, were gathered outside, many too afraid to go home.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
At least 25 people were killed and 267 injured from the explosions. Several people are still missing

Even if they were not afraid, they felt it was better to be outside - thousands of households had lost electricity, water and natural gas, making it miserable to be indoors in the hot summer weather.

Many residents said they had initially thought there was an earthquake. Some thought it was a bomb.

"The explosion was so strong it knocked me off my chair," said one woman.

Kuo Chu-wang, 53, said he was just closing up his tofu stand in a nearby night market when he heard the blasts.

"It was horrible. You only know how terrifying it was if you were here to see the fires," he said, adding that one of his friends saw bodies of the dead and injured littered on the streets.

"We tried to remove the debris from the damaged streets from the road so that ambulances and other rescue vehicles could drive through, but we were told later that it was too dangerous for us to stay here."

They were the lucky ones.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Emergency services worked to clear rubble and remove upended vehicles throughout the day on Friday

Local authorities said most of those killed or injured were out on the streets at the time - some had come out after smelling a strong odour, others were on their way home.

Nearly every hospital in the city was treating patients on Friday.

Chemical leak likely

The cause of the blast is still under investigation. But local authorities suspect a chemical leak - most likely propylene - from one of the pipelines belonging to local petrochemical companies may be to blame.

Kaohsiung has been developed as a centre of the petrochemical industry in Taiwan and there are many factories in the city. Their pipelines run underneath Kaohsiung's streets.

But Ting Yun-kung, a spokesman for the Kaohsiung City government, said the authorities were still trying to determine how much of the city had pipelines running through them.

"Some of the pipelines are 20 to 30 years old," Mr Ting said. "We're investigating where they are. We will step up inspections of them."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Residents are worried about a network of aging pipelines that run under the southern Taiwanese city

The head of Citizen of the Earth, an environmental campaign group in Taiwan, said some of the pipelines were more than 40 years old and posted a map of them criss-crossing beneath Kaohsiung.

Taiwan is also prone to earthquakes and the fear is that the frequent shaking of the ground may cause damage to the pipes.

Local residents said they were now even more worried to learn many of the apartment buildings in the city had petrochemical pipelines running under them.

"When we bought our home we had no idea; nobody would think about asking such a thing at the time of purchase," said Ke Chih-jen.

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu has asked the central government to help the city replace the old underground pipelines.

President Ma Ying-jeou urged government departments to investigate the source of the explosions and prevent any such incident from happening again.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Many local firefighters were caught in the explosions while investigating reports of possible gas leaks

The death toll could rise as many of the injured suffered serious burns. Four of the deceased were firefighters.

Two fire department officials - the third in command of the city's fire department and a fire brigade captain - remain missing.

They were among the first to respond to the scene after residents reported possible gas leaks, before the explosions happened about three hours later.

As excavators continue to clean up the mess and hazardous chemical specialists test the levels of gas and other chemicals in the area, many questions remain unanswered.

Those living in the area and elsewhere in Kaohsiung could only pray that the authorities will act quickly to check for any damaged or leaking pipelines so that there is no repeat of what was a horrible night and day for them.

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