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Updated: Fri, 01 Aug 2014 03:27:41 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Taiwan gas explosions: At least 25 dead, 267 injured

At least 25 people were killed and 267 injured when underground gas explosions ripped through Taiwan's second-largest city, hurling concrete and cars through the air and blasting long trenches in the streets, authorities said Friday, as they searched for the cause.

The series of five explosions about midnight Thursday and early Friday struck a densely populated district where petrochemical companies operate pipelines alongside the sewer system in Kaohsiung, a southwestern port with 2.8 million people.

Firefighters called to the neighbourhood in the late evening to investigate a gas leak were among the victims when the blasts went off hours later, upending at least six fire trucks in the rubble of pavement and dirt.

Four firefighters were among the 25 dead as well as some of 267 people injured, the National Fire Agency said. The death toll could rise, because many of the seriously injured were still being treated, officials said.

'I thought it was a huge earthquake'

"Last night around midnight, the house started shaking and I thought it was a huge earthquake, but when I opened the door, I saw white smoke all over and smelled gas," said Chen Qing-tao, 38, who lives 10 buildings away from the main explosion site.

The fires were believed caused by a leak of propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, but the cause and source of the leak were not immediately clear, officials said.

The exploded gas line belongs to government-owned CPC Corp., which told The Associated Press it showed no signs of problems before the explosions. CPC officials at the scene Friday declined to offer information about reasons for the blasts.

Chang Jia-juch, the director of the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Center, said the leaking gas was most likely to be propene. The source of the leak was unknown. Chang said, however, that propene was not for public use, and that it was a petrochemical material.

One of the fires, along a 10-metre stretch of gas line, was still burning into midday Friday, the National Fire Agency says on its website.

The government's disaster response centre said it was trying to prevent any knock-on gas explosions in the same place or nearby.

"In terms of what we can prevent, we're afraid another explosion could happen, as there is that possibility," said Hsu Lee-hao, an economics affairs ministry section chief staffing the disaster response centre. "We're afraid it could be in the same place or elsewhere."

Cars sent flying

Most of the injured were people outside on the street, often hit by rubble blown toward them or crushed by cars sent flying in the blasts, a police officer at the scene said. Police and firefighters were burned while trying to control blazes.

"I wanted to check on my friend working in the night market, but she was hit by rubble and is now still in the hospital," said Chang Bi-chu, 63, the door to whose house was warped by one of the blasts. "On the way I saw dead bodies. I felt really bad. After all there was just the air crash in Penghu last week."

A TransAsia Airways prop jet that took off from Kaohsiung crashed July 23 while trying to land in stormy weather in an archipelago in the Taiwan Strait. The crash killed 48 people and injured 10.

"The power is cut off in my house, there is no light and the fan doesn't work," Chang added. "We don't have money to stay in a hotel and they're all booked anyway."

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu said several petrochemical companies have pipelines built along the sewage system in Chian-Chen district, which has both factories and residential buildings. She warned people Friday to stay away.

"We have an intersection . that's still burning," Chen said at an emergency government meeting broadcast on television. She called the explosions Kaohsiung's worst gas-related accident in 10 years. "The city of Kaohsiung has opened nine relief shelters. We hope people can first evacuate to a safe place."

More than 1,100 had evacuated overnight.

Search for survivors

Rescue workers expected to find few, if any, people in the rubble because no buildings collapsed, Hsu in the disaster response centre said.

People killed and injured elsewhere were standing, walking or driving in the streets, which are near a night market. On Friday afternoon, paramedics and a rescue dog combed the neighbourhood for survivors.

Power supplies to 12,000 people in the area were severed, and 23,600 lost gas service.

The fire department received reports from residents of gas leakage at about 8:46 p.m., and the explosions started around midnight.

The explosions left large trenches of up to a metre deep running down the centres of four of the hardest-hit roads. The trenches were littered with soot-covered cars and pieces of pipe and edged with pavement slabs torn apart by the blasts. Burnt walls and toppled signs of shops lined Sanduo Road, near an elementary school.

The blasts affected an area of two to three square kilometres, much of it sealed off.

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