Poison Gas 'Death Zone' In China

A man receives treatment for hydrogen sulfide inhalation in Kaixian China gas well explosion
Clouds of poison gas from a burst well left a "death zone" of villages strewn with bodies in China's southwest, with at least 191 people killed and 41,000 forced to flee, news reports said Friday.

Technicians on Saturday morning successfully plugged the well in the Chongqing region, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

"Cap operation is completed successfully in the gas field," the agency reported in a bulletin labeled "Urgent."

Some 9,185 people were treated for gas poisoning and other injuries, and 431 were still hospitalized — 17 in critical condition, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Newspaper photos showed children with red faces and their eyes inflamed from chemical burns.

The gas well burst Tuesday in the remote mountain town of Gaoqiao, releasing a cloud of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide, according to state media. Xinhua said the disaster occurred when a drilling accident broke open a gas well.

"The poisonous gas hovering in the air made an area of 10 square miles a death zone, as many villagers were intoxicated by the fumes in their sleep," the China Daily newspaper said.

Hardest-hit was the village of Xiaoyang, adjacent to the gas field.

A reporter for the Shanghai Morning Post newspaper who visited Thursday wrote of seeing at least six bodies lying beside homes and in fields. The bodies of a 12-year-old boy and his mother were found on a road, the newspaper said. Dead chickens, pigs, owls and dogs were strewn around the village, many with white foam in their nostrils.

A merchant in Xiaoyang was credited with saving 400 people, using his truck to make 20 trips carrying them away from the gas, the newspaper Chongqing Economic Times reported.

One woman who lived 1,000 feet from the well described being choked by foul-smelling gas and hearing neighbors shouting that the well had exploded, the newspaper said. She ran away with her 5-year-old daughter, it said, "but by the time they reached safety, the girl had stopped breathing."

The death toll was high even by the standards of accident-plagued Chinese industry, where thousands of people are killed every year in coalmine explosions and other disasters. Two of those killed were gas field employees, Xinhua said.

The gas field belongs to the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., the China Daily reported. It said a a CNPC subsidiary, PetroChina, began building a $400 million pipeline in August to pump natural gas from Chongqing to central China.

Gas from the well kept rescue workers from entering the area until Thursday, when they found scores of bodies, Xinhua said. Teams combed the area Friday for bodies and possible survivors.

A single paved road links Gaoqiao to the county seat 40 miles to the northeast.

"Poor transport and communications facilities hampered the timely evacuation of all people from nearby areas," Xinhua quoted Vice Mayor Wu Jianong of Chongqing as saying.

Technicians ignited gas spewing from the well on Wednesday to burn it off and stop it from spreading, Xinhua said. Photos released by the agency showed the flames shooting up into the night sky.

Supplies of bedding, drinking water and instant noodles began arriving Friday morning, said an official of the Chongqing Civilian Affairs Rescue Department who wouldn't give his name.

A truck from a Chongqing pharmaceutical company on the road toward the disaster area was loaded with supplies and bore a white banner saying in red Chinese characters, "When one place has difficulty, help comes from all directions."

Newspaper photos showed villagers being taken to nearby towns in pickup trucks and tractor-pulled wagons. Survivors were shown in makeshift hospitals lying under green army quilts on beds squeezed head-to-foot, some breathing from oxygen tanks.

Kaixian county, where Gaoqiao is located, has some 15 natural gas wells, the Shanghai Morning Post reported. The county has a population of 1.4 million people.

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Johannes Rau and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent messages of condolence to Beijing.

China is in the midst of a government campaign to reduce its high rate of workplace deaths. But despite the crackdown, the number of reported fatalities in industrial accidents jumped by 9 percent in the first nine months of this year.