Fireworks blast killsat least 20, injures 175

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Twenty people were killed and at least 175 were injured by an explosion at a fireworks warehouse in the Netherlands last night. It was feared that up to 10 firefighters were among the dead.

Twenty people were killed and at least 175 were injured by an explosion at a fireworks warehouse in the Netherlands last night. It was feared that up to 10 firefighters were among the dead.

Emergency services warned that the death toll was expected to rise after the blast, involving 100 tons of explosives, in a residential area of the city of Enschede at around 3pm. The explosion reduced a wide area to rubble and left a plume of smoke over parts of the city.

Unofficial reports suggested arson as a possible cause. It emerged that there had been two previous fires in the city in the past four days.

The blast is the worst disaster in the Netherlands since an El Al cargo plane carrying explosives and toxic gases crashed into an Amsterdam apartment block in 1992, killing 43 people.

Last night dramatic amateur video film seen on television showed a bright red-orange glow rising over the city as the warehouse erupted, setting dozens of houses alight within seconds and sending hundreds of fireworks shooting high into the afternoon sky.

Shortly afterwards the scene was one of devastation, with ash-blanketed streets full of gutted and burning homes, fireman desperately pouring water on flames and roads blocked by huge slabs of concrete and lined with burnt-out cars and mangled bicycles. Desperate family members were searching for loved ones under the rubble.

Fire crews and emergency staff were working through the night in the hunt for people trapped under their collapsed homes, and to bring the blazes under control. Eyewitnesses likened the chaos in the centre of the town to a scene of devastation from the Second World War Blitz.

They said the explosion was so powerful that pieces of glass and cement fragments were seen flying through the air several miles from the scene. Dutch television showed people fleeing in panic as the blast was followed by a series of further explosions. As dusk fell, shocked victims covered with blood were sitting in the streets and fireman were covering the dead with blankets. Huge gashes were visible in blocks of flats, where the windows were shattered.

"We heard a huge explosion and then we thought, we're finished," an eyewitness told the Dutch television station RTL-4. "We had no idea what was happening. All we knew is there was no place to escape."

Another witness said: "I was sitting in a cafe and all of the sudden there was a huge explosion. Beer glasses shattered, window panes were blown out and people were hit by slabs of concrete." The forceof the explosion, which was heard several miles away, sent a series of fireballs shooting over the town centre and triggered multiple explosions.

The blast is thought to have started as a small fire which spread to a storage area at a warehouse for SE, a major importer of fireworks from China and supplier to pop concerts and festivals in the Netherlands. The building is licensed for fireworks storage. The disaster followed a spell of unseasonably warm, dry weather, with temperatures in the high 80s.

Fire crews were called in from the town of Rheine, across the nearby border with Germany, and many casualties had to be taken to hospitals in other cities as the sheer number of victims left local emergency staff unable to cope.

The amateur video footage on a local television station showed a huge ball of fire rising over the roofs of rows of homes. Sparks shot skyward as further explosions followed. Dutch television reported that a part of the Grolsch beer brewery was ablaze, though the fire in that part of the town was quickly bought under control. Winds also threatened to spread the fire to a large supermarket.

The mayor of Enschede, which is 85 miles east of Amsterdam, declared the neighbourhood of the warehouse a disaster area. He said: "This is truly a calamity."

Last night anger was being expressed at what had happened, with residents asking why the authorities had allowed the fireworks warehouse to be located in the middle of a residential area housing hundreds of people.

The town, of around 140,000 people, is just three miles from the German border and is known for its hi-tech industries.

The blast is one of the worst in the history of explosions at firework factories and warehouses.

At least 56 people died after a series of explosions at an illegal fireworks factory in the central Mexican city of Celaya last year. In 1998, 16 people died in a huge explosion of gunpowder at another Mexican firework factory, on the outskirts of Mexico City.

In China, more than 100 people were killed when 10 tons of dynamite stored in the basement of a crowded five-storey apartment-block exploded in the town of Shaoyang in 1996.