Kaohsiung residents outraged at ‘slow response’ to gas leaks

 Kaohsiung residents say problems with pipes were reported three hours before first of a series of blasts that left 26 dead and 280 injured
 Lawrence Chung in Taipei and Cheung Chi-fai

Angry residents of Kaohsiung accused the Taiwanese authorities of acting too slowly to prevent a series of gas explosions that killed and injured more than 300.

Some relatives of victims accused officials of reacting slowly to complaints about gas leaks that were reported more than three hours before the first blast.

At least 26 people died and 280 were injured in the southern port city on Thursday. Two were still missing last night. Thousands were left without power and water, vehicles were blown away and buildings ripped apart.

It was Taiwan’s second disaster in as many weeks following the crash of a TransAsia Airways plane on the island of Penghu on July 23 that killed 48 people.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou observed a minute’s silence yesterday and vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.

The Taipei-based United Daily News called it the deadliest gas explosion in Taiwan’s history.

Investigators believe the explosions were probably caused by a leak of propene, a gas used to make plastics and fabrics, from an underground pipe. But it was unclear what caused the leak or triggered the blast.

Chen Chin-der, head of the city’s environment protection bureau, confirmed last night that LCY Chemical Group’s propene supply pipe was the likely source of the leak.

LCY earlier admitted finding abnormal pressure in the pipe but said transmission was suspended before the blast. It denied any part in the explosions. It said its pipes, about 10 metres away from the explosion sites, were intact when examined yesterday.

Rescue operations were continuing last night, more than 20 hours after the blasts turned a 2 sq km area into what looked like a war zone, with trenches up to five metres wide and three metres deep. The blasts cut gas supplies to 23,600 households and power to 8,473 households, the Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs said.

Witnesses described seeing cars hurled three storeys high. Many ran for their lives in the dark while the injured lay screaming for help.

Four of the 22 firefighters, including a squad leader, who were sent to put out fires were killed by subsequent explosions, Kaohsiung city government said.

An Apple Daily photographer suffered serious burns.

Firemen had been sent to streets where white smoke had been seen billowing from manholes from 8.40pm. The manhole covers had been blown out but the source of the leak could not be identified. Almost three hours later, shortly before midnight, the first explosion happened in busy Cianjhen district.

The blasts created huge trenches across an area of 2 sq km. Photo: AP

“Is there anyone who can tell me why no one can fix a gas leak problem in three hours?” one resident asked.

What is going on when various parties pass the buck?”

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who visited the scene yesterday, criticised Ma’s government for allowing “so many gas pipelines to be placed underground” in the district.

“In just 20 years, Kaohsiung has been hit by two serious gas explosions,” she said, adding the pipelines “shouldn’t be there in the first place”.

Premier Dr Jiang Yi-huah ordered an investigation.

A gas explosion in the same district of Kaohsiung in September 1997 left 11 dead.

Both Taipei and New Taipei City governments cancelled firework displays yesterday and ordered checks of their pipelines.

President Xi Jinping sent his condolences.

Additional reporting by Andrea Chen, Bloomberg