Gas cloud kills three in Cape

South African tragedy: Fire at sulphur stockpile left over from days of apartheid causes havoc in quiet community

When a cloud of poisonous gas from a chemical plant fire rolled into a small South African town this weekend, killing three people and forcing the evacuation of thousands, the African National Congress of President Nelson Mandela saw apartheid as the real culprit behind the tragedy.

The fire that caused the disaster began in a field close to the town of Macassar late on Saturday. It quickly spread to the African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI) plant at nearby Somerset West, about 25 miles from Cape Town. Stored at the plant were 15,000 tons of sulphur, part of the former apartheid government's strategic stockpiles for its internationally boycotted military and civilian industries.

Almost immediately a cloud of dense, toxic smoke billowed over the area, forcing 2,500 people to flee in an assortment of cars, fire engines, police lorries and ambulances.

"We just saw a bundle of smoke coming over our place...we first thought it was just grass burning but then we smelt gas,'' David Ross, a Macassar resident, said after he was evacuated. ''Our eyes and noses were stinging and our chests were so tight. We had difficulty breathing."

At least 100 people were treated for smoke inhalation and later released. By yesterday afternoon the crisis was contained and people were allowed to return home.

Strong winds and quick action by Cape emergency services were credited with saving hundreds of lives, but the question was asked: why were dangerous chemicals stored so close to residential areas.

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