Pipeline blast kills at least 15 in Belgian factories

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The Independent Online

At least 15 people died and 112 were injured yesterday when a leak from a natural gas pipeline caused a huge blast, engulfing two factories in a fireball and creating a vast cloud of smoke over southern Belgium.

At least 15 people died and 112 were injured yesterday when a leak from a natural gas pipeline caused a huge blast, engulfing two factories in a fireball and creating a vast cloud of smoke over southern Belgium.

The explosion, at an industrial estate in Ghislenghien, about 40km (25 miles) south of Brussels, was felt miles away and witnesses reported houses trembling as flames shot 100 metres into the air. At the disaster scene, where the two factories were destroyed, corpses and debris were scattered over a 500-metre radius.

Francis Boileau, a fire department spokesman, said: "There were bodies in parking lots, in the fields; burnt out cars in an area half a kilometre wide. It looks like a war zone. There were people fleeing who I am sure we will find too late in the fields several hundred metres away."

Emergency services struggled to cope with the catastrophe as six helicopters, 50 ambulances and 10 medical teams were drafted in to ferry the wounded to hospitals in France as well as Belgium.

With victims taken to so many points, there was confusion over precise casualty figures. But last night, the Defence Minister, André Flahaut, said the death toll had reached 15, with 112 injured.

Earlier, smoke was still seen belching from the blackened ruins of one factory, as fire crews sought to douse the blaze. Residents were urged to stay indoors with their windows closed.

The blast occurred at about 8.45am at a company called Diamond Boart, in an industrial park at Ghislenghien near the town of Ath, not far from Belgium's border with France. Alerted to a possible leak by a strong smell of gas, workers called fire crews to the scene 30 minutes before the explosion.

Four or five firemen are thought to have been among the fatalities and, with many victims suffering serious burns, the authorities expected the death toll to rise.

The cause of the blast was identified as a natural gas pipeline, buried six metres below the earth, which links the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to northern France. The subterranean pipeline was pierced accidentally by construction workers, according to Guy Petit, the governor of the province of Hainault.

Despite the cloud of smoke left hanging over the area and the presence of chlorine in the atmosphere, residents were told there was no danger from poisoning and were not evacuated. But witnesses were shocked at the scale of the explosion. Elise Hoffman, who lives two miles from the disaster site at Silly, said: "I felt the whole house shaking and I saw flames shoot more than 100 metres towards the sky. At first I thought a plane had crashed."

Aurélien Cornil, who lives nearer the factory and had been asleep at the time, added: "At first I thought it was an earthquake. I got up to look out of the window and saw 100-metre flames. It was an apocalyptic sight and it terrified me. That's the truth. This sort of thing only happens to other people."

As the scale of the disaster emerged, the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, broke off his holiday in Italy to fly home and visit the scene before chairing an emergency cabinet meeting.

The blast was the deadliest such explosion in the country since 1967, when a tanker carrying liquid gas exploded, killing 22 people. In Belgium's worst industrial catastrophe, in 1956, a total of 262 people died in an underground mine explosion at Marcinelle.

In the wake of yesterday's disaster, two main roads were closed, adding to traffic chaos on one of the busiest days on Europe's roads as holidaymakers made an early getaway for their summer break in France and southern Europe.

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