Medical shortages hit child victims of Korean rail tragedy

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The Independent Online

The main hospital treating victims of last week's train explosion in North Korea is so poorly equipped that it was treating school-aged patients on filing cabinets yesterday as it struggled to overcome a shortage of beds and problems with medical equipment.

In Sinuiju Provincial Hospital, at North Korea's border wih China, 360 victims of the blast were being treated yesterday. More than 60 per cent of the victims were children.

The most serious injuries were suffered by children in a nearby school who heard the initial blast, glanced towards it and were struck by a wave of glass, rubble and heat. Officials said that last Thursday's huge explosion in the town of Ryongchon killed 161 people and injured at least 1,300.

Tony Banbury, Asia regional director for the UN World Food Programme, said that many victims suffered serious eye injuries. He said: "They clearly lack the ability to care for all the patients."

The hospital was "short of just about everything", Mr Banbury said, including antibiotics, steroids and painkillers. Equipment was not plugged in, suggesting it was broken or that electricity was insufficient. Some children were lying on filing cabinets because of the meagre number of beds.

The devastation at the school could have been far more lethal. Pierette Vulthi, a Unicef representative in Pyongyang, said the explosion occurred 10 minutes after the morning session of classes ended and many children had already left the building. She said: "It could have been much worse."

Nearly half of the dead were children in the school, which was torn apart by the blast. Thousands of Ryongchon residents were left homeless.

John Sparrow, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Beijing, said: "They've been taken in by other families. We were fearing [there would be] people on the streets. We breathed a big sigh of relief when we saw that wasn't the case."

Aid workers described huge craters, twisted rail tracks and scorched buildings at the scene of the explosion. But the 1,300 people that North Korean officials said were injured had been evacuated - before the workers arrived - to nearby Sinuiju, where the foreigners were not able to visit.

"People were cleaning up by hand and loading their meagre belongings onto ox carts," Mr Banbury said. "They looked like World War I refugees.''

UN officials estimated 40 per cent of Ryongchon was damaged. The aid workers' visit followed a rare invitation from the usually secretive North Korean government for international help.

North Korea's reclusive Communist regime has blamed the disaster on human error, saying a train's cargo of oil and chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, ignited when workers knocked the wagons against power lines. The statement was unusually frank for a government that maintains strict controls on information to the outside world and its own people. Agricultural supplies such as ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilisers and is extremely volatile, are diverted for military uses in North Korea. The death toll rose by seven yesterday; it was unclear if the higher number reflected new fatalities or confirmed casualties.