Large explosion at Dutch fireworks warehouse kills 20

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The Independent Online

At least 20 people were killed and 175 wounded Saturday when a fireworks storehouse in Enschede, caught fire, triggering multiple explosions and sending billowing fire balls over the town center.

A sea of black smoke plunged an entire neighborhood in darkness as the fire continued to rage hours after the afternoon blast and helicopters and ambulances ferried away the injured.

"This is truly a calamity," Mayor J. Mans told RTL-5 television.

He said the fire, caused by 100 tons of explosives, was still burning but under control. Area hospitals were treating 175 injured people, he said, warning that the death toll could rise. Nearly 2,000 people live in the neighborhood where the explosion took place, according to the mayor.

"I'm afraid that there are more people buried under the rubble," he said.

Mans initially told RTL-5 that 10 firefighters were missing, but later said on the NOS report that the exact figure was unknown.

Interior Minister Klaas de Vries arrived on the scene and said that emergency services were being coordinated by the National Crisis Center in The Hague.

"Everyone in the Netherlands feels compassion for the people of Enschede," he said.

The neighborhood around the warehouse, called Enschede North, resembled the aftermath of a heavy bombing raid. There were no signs of life on the gray, ash-blanketed streets. Homes were reduced to blackened rubble and surrounded by burnt-out hulks of cars and mangled bicycles.

NOS television reporter Pauline Broekema said desperate family members were searching for loved ones under the rubble.

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

"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," said a teen-ager.

Television reports described the firm that operated the warehouse, S.E., as a major importer of fireworks from China and supplier to pop concerts and major festive events in the Netherlands.

Amateur video footage shown on RTL-4 television showed a huge ball of fire rising over the roofs of row homes in a densely populated area. Sparks shot skyward as further explosions ensued.

The camera turned downward and panned across a street strewn with bricks and broken glass.

A statement issued by the municipality said the explosion was the result of a fire that broke out at the S.E. fireworks warehouse at around 3 p.m (1300 gmt).

No further details were given on the cause of the blast. However, it followed a spell of unseasonably warm and exceptionally dry weather, with temperatures in the upper 20s Celsius (80s Fahrenheit).

The explosion occurred several blocks north of the train station, television reports said. The Dutch national railway said train service to the city had been suspended.

The municipal statement said ambulance and fire corps from nearby Dutch cities, as well as Rheine across the border in Germany, were assisting in the transport of wounded persons to hospitals.

A local Dutch air force base was reportedly being used to treat the wounded.

Dutch television said a 500 square meter area (625 square yard) area around the warehouse was destroyed by the blast and a thick plume of smoke was visible miles away.

The mayor said the warehouse was licensed for fireworks storage, but could not explain why it was situated dangerously close to a residential area.

Dutch television reported that a part of the Grolsch beer brewery was ablaze as a result of the explosion. Winds were also threatening to spread the fire to a large supermarket.