An explosion in a factory zone in northern China late Tuesday killed at least 23 people and left 22 others injured, officials said, adding to the string of deadly accidents in the country’s vast industrial sector.
The explosion erupted near the Hebei Shenghua Chemical Industry Company plant in Hebei Province and tore through roughly 50 vehicles, including 38 trucks that had lined up to deliver chemicals and other goods to factories in the zone, Chinese news reports said, citing investigators. But later on Wednesday there was still no firm answer on what caused the explosion, and whether there was any link to the big Shenghua plant or maybe a smaller factory nearby.
The fiery explosion could be heard from over a mile away, news reports said, citing residents, and video and pictures from the scene showed that the blast sent a dark plume of smoke into the night sky. Daylight arrived to reveal charred, smoldering trucks, some with their tires burned away, that lay along the road.
After decades of encouraging feverish industrial growth, the Chinese government has been trying to curb the large numbers of accidents in factories, mines and plants. Official statistics indicate that industrial accidents and deaths have fallen.
But the latest explosion was a jolting reminder that factories, especially chemical plants, have been troubled by deadly leaks, fires and blasts, often caused by lax management.
A worker at Hebei Shenghua who answered the phone on Wednesday said that the latest explosion erupted outside the front gate of the factory in the city of Zhangjiakou, and not on its grounds. The worker declined to give her name.
An industrial safety official who gave only his surname, Wu, told The Paper, a news website in Shanghai, that one of the trucks lined up outside the plant to deliver chemicals had exploded, setting off a chain reaction that engulfed the other vehicles.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, said that the truck that triggered the blast was delivering acetylene to an energy technology factory. But an unnamed official from the Zhangjiakou industrial safety office warned that it was too early to draw firm conclusions, the Beijing News reported.
The first reports said that six people had been killed. But later Wednesday morning, officials in Zhangjiakou raised the death toll to 22, with the same number injured and receiving treatment in two hospitals. Later in the day, rescuers found another corpse from the accident, and more may yet be found.
Many of the dead appeared to be truck drivers, who were dozing or waiting in their trucks to unload deliveries when the explosion erupted. The reports did not say whether the dead and injured also included workers or residents of nearby villages.
“Search and rescue work at the site, and an investigation into the cause of the accident, are still proceeding urgently,” the Zhangjiakou government said in a statement.
In China’s deadliest industrial accident of recent times, a cluster of explosions at a seaside chemical warehouse in 2015 in Tianjin, another northern Chinese city, killed 165 people. Government investigators concluded that sloppy management and perfunctory regulation were responsible.
This year, the Chinese government merged its safety management and emergency response agencies into a new Ministry of Emergency Management, and Tuesday’s accident will be one of its first big tests. The ministry said a vice minister, Fu Jianhua, had gone to the scene in Hebei.