At least 24 people are dead and 271 injured after several underground gas explosions ripped through Taiwan's second-largest city overnight, sending flames shooting 15 storeys into the air, setting entire blocks ablaze and reducing small shops to rubble.
The series of explosions about midnight Thursday and early Friday (local time) struck a district where several petrochemical companies operate pipelines alongside the sewer system in Kaohsiung, a southwestern port with 2.8 million people.
The fires were believed caused by a leak of propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, but the source of the gas was not immediately clear, officials said.
Video from the TVBS broadcaster showed residents searching for victims in shattered storefronts and rescuers pulling injured people from the rubble of a road and placing them on stretchers while passersby helped other victims on a sidewalk. Broadcaster ETTV showed rows of large fires sending smoke into the night sky.
Four firefighters were among the 24 dead and 271 people were injured, the National Fire Agency said. The firefighters had been at the scene investigating reports of a gas leak when the explosions occurred, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.
President Ma Ying-jeou pledged tough measures to prevent any recurrence of the incident.
"We will make further arrangements and inspections to avoid this kind of disaster from occurring again," Ma said in comments shown on television after speaking via a video link with Kaohsiung's mayor.
The blast sent flames racing through the district and smoke billowing high into the air. Flames shot up from sewers and gutters and water from burst mains gushed through the streets.
Residents said the blast shook buildings like there was an earthquake, toppling small shops and overturning cars.
Rescuers formed a chain to pull dozens of injured from a vast crater in the street and picked their way through piles of rubble as they ferried the injured away on stretchers.
Victims overcome by smoke were resuscitated in the street.
At least five blasts shook the city, Taiwan's Premier Jiang Yi-huah said.
Chang Jia-juch, the director of the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Centre, said the leaking gas was most likely to be propene, meaning that the resulting fires could not be extinguished by water. He said emergency workers would have to wait until the gas is burnt away.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu said several petrochemical companies have pipelines built along the sewage system in Chian-Chen district, which has both factories and residential buildings.
"Our priority is to save people now. We ask citizens living along the pipelines to evacuate," Chen told TVBS television.
Power was cut off in the area, making it difficult for firefighters to search for others who might be buried in rubble.
CNA said the local fire department received reports from residents of gas leakage at about 8.46pm and that explosions started about midnight.
Closed-circuit television showed an explosion rippling through the floor of a motorcycle parking area, hurling concrete and other debris through the air. Mobile phone video captured the sound of an explosion as flames leapt at least 9 metres into the air.
One of the explosions left a large trench running down the center of a road, edged with piles of concrete slabs torn apart by the force of the blast. Several emergency vehicles were tossed upside down. The force of the initial blast also felled trees lining the street.
- AP, Reuters