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12,000 evacuees return after Taiwan gas explosions

By Ralph Jennings

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 1 2014 8:26 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 1 2014 8:26 a.m. MDT

Rescue workers use a sniffer dog to look for missing persons believed to be buried as firetrucks lie damaged after massive gas explosions in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. A series of explosions about midnight Thursday and early Friday ripped through Taiwan's second-largest city, killing scores of people, Taiwan's National Fire Agency said Friday.

Wally Santana, Associated Press

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — The 12,000 people who fled in fear of more gas pipeline explosions in Taiwan's second-largest city returned to their homes Friday after authorities said there was no more risk of blasts like the series that devastated a more than 2 square kilometers (1 square mile) area, killing 26 people and injuring 267.

With clean-up work underway, investigators were turning to the task of determining the cause of the blasts, the industrial city's worst such disaster in 16 years.

Most of the four ruptured street sections in the densely populated district of Kaohsiung had been declared safe from further explosions by afternoon, a city spokesman said. A fire in a 10-meter (yard) -long section that burned through the night had also been put out.

Five explosions ripped through four streets starting around midnight Thursday, catapulting cars into the air and blasting cement rubble at passers-by, many of whom were out late because of a nearby night market.

That came about three hours after a gas leak had been reported on Kaixuan Road, but emergency services had been unable to locate the source.

Four firefighters were among the victims and two were missing, while at least six fire trucks were flung into the rubble. The blasts sent flames shooting into the sky and hurled concrete through the air, leaving broad, meter-deep (yard-deep) trenches down the middle of roads.

Many of the injured were still receiving emergency treatment. The disaster was Taiwan's second in as many weeks following the crash of a TransAsia Airways prop jet on the island of Penghu on July 23 that killed 48 people and injured 10.

"Last night around midnight, the house started shaking and I thought it was a huge earthquake, but when I opened the door, I saw white smoke all over and smelled gas," said Chen Qing-tao, 38, who lives 10 buildings away from the main explosion site.

The explosions were believed caused by leaking propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, said Chang Jia-juch, director of the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Center. Chang said the cause and location of the leaks were unknown.

The exploded gas line belongs to government-owned CPC Corp., which told The Associated Press there were no signs of problems before the explosions.

Propene is mainly used for making the plastic polypropylene used in a wide variety of packaging, caps and films. It can be detected by its mildly unpleasant smell.

The city will do a formal probe on what cause the explosions, said city spokesman Ting Yun-kung.

"We haven't started a formal investigation yet, just a partial one," he said. "A full one will take a few days."

Industrial-use pipelines run through the Kaohsiung's residential neighborhoods because industry preceded the construction of housing, Ting said. The port city contains much of Taiwan's heavy industry, especially petrochemicals.

Video from broadcasters showed residents searching for victims overnight in shattered storefronts and rescuers placing injured people on stretchers. Numerous fires sent smoke pouring into the night sky above the Chian-Chen district, where factories operate near low-rise residential buildings.

The government's disaster response center spent much of Friday trying to prevent secondary explosions. With the risk easing after mid-day, all but 300 of an original 12,000 evacuees had left emergency shelters and just one of an initial nine remained open, Ting said.

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu had gone on television urging people to take shelter until their neighborhoods were declared safe.

However, disaster officials were still conducting safety checks on some of the damaged homes before letting occupants back in.

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