China dynamite blast kills over 100

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The Independent Online
TERESA POOLE

Peking

More than 100 people were killed and 400 injured this week when 10 tons of dynamite stored in the basement of a crowded five-storey apartment building exploded, demolishing an entire street in a southern Chinese town.

The huge blast was the latest in a series of accidents that demonstrate general disregard of the dangers of dynamite, despite government attempts to regulate the handling of explosives. In one recent case a passenger on a packed Peking bus was taking explosives home in his shoulder-bag when they blew up.

Wednesday evening's explosion took place in a suburb of Shaoyang, in central China, about 900 miles south of Peking.

Last night's main national television news showed dramatic pictures of a 30ft crater where the building had stood. Another 40 homes, some up to 100 yards away, were also flattened, the report said. Windows were shattered more than a mile away.

The exact cause of the explosion, and the reason the dynamite was there in the first place, were still unclear last night.

Television news said the blast was the result of excessive heat in the building's basement.

But there was widespread local speculation that the explosives might have been detonated as an act of revenge.

According to the local cable television station, a private businessman who was living in the building had stored 10 tons of dynamite in the basement, after being given it in lieu of money by a cash-strapped debtor.

A newspaper quoted local officials as saying the resident was illegally dealing in explosives. However, last night's national news blamed unspecified "jobless people" who were illegally manufacturing products with dynamite, without saying what these products might be.

There is an active trade in dynamite in China, which is mostly illegal, on account of its use in mining, construction and the manufacture of fireworks and firecrackers.

Shaoyang is in a mining region of Hunan province, but it is also possible that the dynamite dump was connected to illegal manufacturing of firecrackers ahead of the Chinese New Year in a fortnight's time.

Firecrackers traditionally play a big role in the New Year celebrations, although they have been banned in several major cities, including Peking, for safety reasons.

The Hunan Daily newspaper called the Shaoyang accident "extraordinarily serious" and said provincial experts had joined an investigation, but it is unlikely the full truth will ever be made public.

Television footage showed thousands of soldiers, police and volunteers clawing by hand and with bulldozers through the rubble in an attempt to find more survivors.

However, no one has been found alive since Thursday afternoon, 20 hours after the disaster. About 10 of the injured have died so far.

China's worst dynamite explosions have usually involved fireworks factories.

Two years ago, 800 tons of gunpowder blew up in a private factory in Hebei province, killing 26 people. Accidents with explosives are also common in coal-mining areas, because families often store explosives and detonators in their homes, ignoring the obvious risks.

Handling of dynamite is often cavalier. On 12 May people were killed when a ton of dynamite stored by a peasant in his village home in Henan province exploded during the night.

Gunpowder is also regularly transported by peasants on trains and buses, often with tragic results.

Explosions are only one cause of the high death toll in China resulting from avoidable disasters. A succession of fatal fires, the high construction site death rates, and the heavy loss of life in coal mines has prompted the authorities to try and improve safety regulations and awareness across the country.

The latest spate of accidents to feature prominently in the local media has been building collapses, which were responsible for killing at least 31 people within three weeks at the end of last year.

Industrial safety records remain poor in China. More than 6,650 people died in industrial accidents in the first five months of 1995, and 2,716 were seriously injured, according to official figures.

However, the real number is probably much higher. Mine explosions, collapses and other pit accidents kill up to 10,000 miners a year.

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