Hundreds still missing in Holland as asbestos cloud threatens survivors

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The Independent Online

Dutch emergency services were struggling to account for 200 people last night after the Netherlands' worst disaster for nearly a decade turned the centre of a town into an inferno, left at least 14 people dead and released a cloud of asbestos into the atmosphere.

Dutch emergency services were struggling to account for 200 people last night after the Netherlands' worst disaster for nearly a decade turned the centre of a town into an inferno, left at least 14 people dead and released a cloud of asbestos into the atmosphere.

As the scale of devastation from Saturday's blast emerged there was mounting anger in the border town of Enschede that a fireworks warehouse containing about 100 tons of explosives had been allowed to operate from a residential area. Authorities were promising an investigation into the licensing procedures.

Other questions remained, including the possibility that the blast was started deliberately. The local fire chief refused to rule out the suggestion that the fire which sparked Saturday's catastrophic blast was linked to two recent arson attacks.

Twenty-four hours after the explosion, fire crews continued to fight smaller blazes, including one at the town's Grolsch beer plant, and emergency services said they expected the death toll to rise from the 14 confirmed fatalities to about 20. Some 400 houses in 15 streets were destroyed and around 1,000 damaged when the blast ripped through the centre of the Dutch border town on Saturday afternoon. Four of the 14 fatalities were firemen. Emergency workers said 541 people had been wounded, 10 seriously, and 200 residents had not been accounted for.

Compounding the sense of despair in Enschede, came the news yesterday that asbestos from the roof of the warehouse had been released into the atmosphere.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, and Queen Beatrix visited Enschede yesterday.

"It chokes me up," said Mr Kok after visiting the cratered centre of the blast, strewn with the wrecks of vehicles. "This is the most terrible thing that could happen to people. How could this happen and why here, why these people?" One survivor, Liz Tiben, voiced the feelings of many residents when she asked the Prime Minister why a fireworks warehouse had been allowed to operate from a residential area. But the town's mayor, Jan Mans, said the warehouse had been inspected last Wednesday and had conformed to local safety requirements.

Meanwhile residents werestill hunting for missing friends or relatives. "I am very worried," said Oonk Henk. "I am looking for my son and daughter. They lived right in the area where the explosion was and I don't know whether they are alive or dead."

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