China rescuers reach 'death zone'
Friday, December 26, 2003
Children in hospital had their eyes sealed shut by the gas.
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Rescuers in southwestern China are finding villages full of dead people after a gas well blowout unleashed a toxic cloud, creating a 25-square kilometer "death zone."
So far, 191 people have been killed and hundreds injured, while 41,000 residents have been forced to flee the remote area northeast of Chongqing city.
Victims suffering from chemical burns, respiratory irritation and severe poisoning were flocking Friday to the largest hospital in the area, joining 800 people already there.
Crews are working frantically to seal the poisonous gas leak, but plans to cap the well have been postponed until Saturday so evacuations can continue.
The exact cause of the disaster is still being investigated.
According to the state-run Xinhua News, the gas well "burst" Tuesday in the Chuandongbei gas field, releasing natural gas and sulfurated hydrogen "killing and poisoning many people."
Poisonous gas hovered over the village as many residents slept, making "an area of 25 square kilometers (10 square miles) a death zone," the state-run China Daily reported.
The first casualties were workers from PetroChina, which owns the gas field, a company spokesman told CNN.
"This kind of blowout is not unusual during oil or gas drilling," the spokesman said from the company's headquarters in Beijing.
"It was the sulfurated hydrogen that made this accident so fatal."
Senior executives from the company are on the scene assisting rescue efforts.
One rescue coordinator told CNN poisonous gas continued to leak at the Chuandongbei gas field, but had been reduced considerably.
Mothers huddle with their children and other survivors.
Gas field workers Wednesday partially contained the leaking gas by igniting it and burning off poisonous fumes.
State media said that the initial casualty figures -- eight people -- were low because it took rescue workers a full day to reach the remote area and count the corpses.
The gas field is 337 kilometers northeast of Chongqing city, rescue officials said.
Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Huang Ju have urged residents to move to safety, the China Daily reported.
China has a notoriously poor work safety record.
More than 120,000 people died in work-related accidents from January to November this year, the official China Daily said earlier this month.
In its annual safety report for 2002, PetroChina said the company suffered 179 accidents with 38 deaths, including a hydrogen sulfide toxic accident that killed five people.
Chongqing and the neighboring province of Sichuan are among China's major natural gas producing areas.
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