Blast rumor raises public safety concern

Updated: 2011-02-13 08:02
Large Medium Small

NANJING - Two chemical plant accidents, a blast and a toxic gas leak happened within three years in Xiangshui, a coastal county in east China's Jiangsu Province. So when rumors of a blast came early on Thursday morning, residents believed it and started to flee.

Four people died in the stampede on Thursday in Xiangshui County due to rumors that a local chemical plant was going to explode, said Zhou Houliang, a spokesman for the county government.

Related readings:
Blast rumor raises public safety concern 67% firms in Jiangsu expect labor shortage
Blast rumor raises public safety concern Jiangsu exports more solar cells but at lower price

More than 10,000 residents of four townships in Xiangshui county swarmed into streets, panicking over rumors spreading late on Wednesday night that there was a toxic gas leak from a local chemical plant which could explode at any moment, said Zhou.

The evacuation caused traffic jams and chaos on the streets. A motor tricycle carrying more than 20 people fell into a river during the confusion, killing four passengers.

"I was sleeping at around 3:00 am on Thursday, and I heard a loud sound from the street. I got up and saw people running outside," said a villager surnamed Zhang from Xinshe village in Laoshe Township.

"Many people made phone calls while they ran, but there was no signal at all. I couldn't even make an emergency call," Zhang said.

The county government began to deny the blast rumor by text messages, radio stations, TV stations and websites at around 6:00 am Thursday; shortly after, people started to return home, Zhou said.

A press conference was held at around 10:30 am the same day by the county government to announce that the situation was under control.

But many villagers doubted the government's statement.

"I myself smelled an unusual pungent odor early that morning," said Li, a villager from Tanggang village. "I could still smell the farm chemical later that morning, but a police car came and told us to go back home."

Xiangshui County has a chemical industry park, which covers an area of 10.5 square kilometers and has attracted more than 40 chemical companies to it since 2002. Many villagers were worried about pollution from the chemical plants.

But major panic resulted from two previous accidents. On November 27, 2007 a chemical plant of Jiangsu Lianhua technology company in the industry park exploded and killed eight people. On November 23, 2010, more than 30 people were poisoned by chlorine leaking from another chemical plant of Jiangsu Dahe chlorinate alkali company.

Even if the government said the park should be environmentally friendly, a strange smell permeated the area around the industry park, said a villager who refused to give his name.

"No matter whether it is a rumor or not, we run. We have to protect our lives and people did smell something pungent."

Da Sulin, an associate professor with the school of government of Nanjing University, said that the government should have taken measures to assure people of their safety even before they started to build the chemical industry park. Had they done so, the government would have gained the trust of residents who live close to the chemical plants.

"Also, rumors will stop when the truth is released. But if the government announced the truth, and people still don't believe it, then it becomes a problem of the government's credibility," Da added.

Three people were investigated for spreading the rumors, including a chemical plant worker, said Xu Dezhi, deputy head of Xiangshui County on Friday.

Police are still investigating the case.

According to Xu, a new round of safety inspections of the chemical industry park is underway and the government will strive to make residents feel safe.