IMAGE: Fire pours out of a natural gas well in China
Chen Min  /  Xinhua via Reuters
Fire pours out of the mouth of a natural gas well in China’s southwest on Thursday, in an effort to reduce the amount of poisonous gas released into the air. Nearly 200 people were reported killed when the well erupted.
updated 12/25/2003 10:13:51 PM ET 2003-12-26T03:13:51

Crews worked desperately Friday to plug a burst natural gas well in southwest China and stop a leak of toxic fumes that has left nearby villages full of bodies. At least 191 people were killed, nearly 300 injured, and more than 41,000 forced to flee their homes, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Disaster officials feared the death toll could rise as 20 special teams combed the area near the gas field looking for survivors and more victims, Xinhua reported.

Rescue workers were prevented from entering the area immediately after the well erupted Tuesday night in a gas field in the town of Gaoqiao because they lacked the proper equipment and the fumes from the deadly mix of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide were too strong, Xinhua reported. By Wednesday morning, only nine people had been confirmed dead, the agency said.

Difficult to escape
The mountainous terrain and muddy roads also made it difficult for villagers to flee and hindered rescue work and communications, Xinhua said.

When disaster teams finally entered the area on Thursday, they made one grisly discovery after another, finding villages full of bodies, the agency said. The death toll steadily mounted through the day, and 191 people were confirmed dead as of Friday morning, Xinhua said.

The blowout released a toxic cloud that forced the evacuation of more than 41,000 people in a 3-mile radius from the gas field, Xinhua reported.

President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders ordered local authorities to “go all out to rescue victims, prevent poisonous gas from spreading further and reduce casualties,” Xinhua said.

The cause of the disaster at the Chuandongbei gas field wasn’t clear. Xinhua said it involved a drilling mishap that broke open a gas well, but didn’t give details.

Technicians were trying to contain the well on Friday. “We will see whether we can curb the natural gas from further escaping,” Qian Zhijia, deputy head of the gas field, told Xinhua.

Xinhua had reported earlier that technicians would try to plug the well using cement and earth-moving equipment. They ignited the gas spewing from the wellhead on Wednesday to burn it off and stop it from spreading, Xinhua said. Photos released by the agency showed the flames shooting up into the night sky.

Guo Li  /  AP
Two children suffered eye injuries from toxic fumes from the fatal gas blowout.
The death toll was high even by the appalling standards of China’s accident-plagued industry, where coal mine explosions and other disasters kill dozens at a time, totaling thousands every year.

More than 290 people were hospitalized — most of them children, Xinhua said. Victims were being treated for gas poisoning and chemical burns, the Web site of the state newspaper China Daily reported. Photos from one makeshift showed women and children with blistered faces, some breathing from oxygen tanks parked beside their beds.

“There are farmers and miners, old and young, men and women,” an unidentified hospital employee was quoted as saying by the China Daily. “Some died after they arrived here.”

The gas field is about 210 miles northeast of Chongqing, a city of millions.

Bad safety record
The disaster came amid sweeping government efforts to tighten industrial safety in China and reduce the carnage in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of workplace deaths.

Despite the crackdown, the number of deaths in China’s mines and factories jumped nearly 9 percent in the first nine months of this year to 11,449, according to the government.

Fatal accidents often are blamed on lack of required fire equipment and indifference to safety rules by managers.

State television reported the gas field disaster Thursday as the second item on its national evening newscast but gave no death toll.

The gas field is run by the Sichuan Petroleum Administration, part of state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., Xinhua said. 

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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