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Qingdao continues recovery

Updated: 2013-11-25 07:15
By He Na and Xie Chuanjiao in Qingdao, and Cui Jia and Tang Yue in Beijing ( China Daily)

President Xi Jinping says he feels sad at loss of life from the pipeline explosion, report He Na and Xie Chuanjiao in Qingdao, and Cui Jia and Tang Yue in Beijing.

As the death toll from Friday morning's explosion in Qingdao, Shandong province, rose to 52 on Sunday, officials ruled out the possibility of further blasts but said they will continue to monitor the situation closely. Eleven people are still missing and 136 are receiving hospital treatment. Officials said the blast happened when crude oil that had leaked from a ruptured pipeline ignited in storm drains in the Huangdao district.

City authorities had been concerned about the potential for further explosions because the force of the blast ruptured a number of pipelines in the area and buckled many others.

President Xi Jinping arrived in the city on Sunday afternoon to inspect the rescue efforts. After visiting blast victims at a hospital in Huangdao, he was given updates on the latest situation, according to reports on China Central Television on Sunday evening.

Xi said he was saddened by the loss of life and the devastation caused by the accident. He promised that the people responsible would be dealt with according to the law, and he pledged that people whose relatives had died or been injured would be compensated.

He said State-owned enterprises must take the lead in the "safe development" of Chinese industry and stressed that local governments should reject any project that poses a potential safety hazard to the general public. Xi also emphasized that officials should learn the lessons of previous accidents and said safety inspections must be carried out nationwide, especially on underground pipelines and networks.

The explosion blew a crater in the street about 30 meters in diameter and 6 meters deep. On Sunday, the rain poured as cranes lifted pieces of concrete about 20 cm thick from the crater, which was full of black wastewater mixed with crude oil. A strong smell of gasoline lingered in the air along Huangdao's 4-km main road, which was ripped apart by the blast.

Qingdao municipal government has ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack, and said the economic damage to the area is still being assessed.

Complicated network

Friday's blast occurred at around 10:30 am, as workers were cleaning up fuel that had been spotted leaking from the pipeline more than seven hours earlier. Angry local residents are now asking why no official warning was given when the leak was initially discovered and why the pipeline was situated so close to a built-up area.

Under regulations that came into force in 2003, crude oil pipelines must be situated at least 15 meters away from public places and residential areas. They must also be at least 20 meters from factories and production areas.

However, in 2001, the Qingdao-based Peninsula Metropolis Daily reported that some buildings stand within 5 meters of the pipeline, which was laid in 1986 and predates the 2003 regulations. The residential section of Huangdao was built in the 1980s and 90s.

Guo Jishan, deputy secretary general of Qingdao municipal government, said that when it was laid, the pipeline conformed with the rules, but admitted that many pipelines run below Huangdao and they often overlap. "The pipeline system in Huangdao is very complicated - there are at least 11 different ones," he said.

Sinopec denied media reports that the 248-km-long pipeline, which runs across part of Shandong, from Dongying to Huangdao, was laid in August 2012.

The company said the pipeline was identified as a potential risk in 2011 and it plans to reroute five sections, including the 15 to 16 km running below Huangdao, plus two other pipelines in the province. However, it said the work has been stalled because the environmental impact of the plans is still under official assessment.

In a public announcement related to the first round of the environmental impact assessment in 2011, Sinopec said: "The area where the pipelines are located has become an extremely busy location, with many new buildings and a dense population. Some of the pipelines have been built over, making them inaccessible for repair and many of those we are able to reach are too close to buildings and it's difficult to maintain the erosion-resistant-layers. That makes them a potential safety hazard."

Sinopec conducted a nationwide safety inspection on an "unprecedented scale" in October, according to the company's website. Qingdao municipal government confirmed that the company inspected the pipeline at the center of Friday's tragedy, but was unable to give any further details.

No official warning

Many residents said they had been given no warning of the oil leak. "What I don't understand is why no one told us there was a leak on the oil pipeline, which is buried right next to my place of work, and why they didn't evacuate us when the repair work started?" said Li Baoli, an employee at a factory owned by Yihe Electrical Equipment Co, which is situated close by Zhaitangdao street - one of the worst-hit areas.

Li Baoli, who suffered a broken ankle in the blast, said that if the authorities had warned the factory about the possible danger, work could have been suspended for the day and many lives could have be spared.

"I wouldn't have worked here if I'd know that an explosion caused by leaking oil could be this severe. I've been working at this factory for 13 years, but I never knew that an oil pipeline ran underneath it," said the 45-year-old, speaking from his hospital bed.

He said he heard two loud bangs and was thrown to the ground by the shockwave. He attempted to run, but felt a sharp pain in his right ankle, which had been hit by flying masonry. "I had no choice but to ignore the pain. It felt as though death was chasing me when I heard a third loud bang," he recalled.

His colleagues took him to the hospital in a car with no windows - all the glass in nearby buildings and vehicles had been shattered by the explosion.

"My injury is nothing - some of my colleagues were killed. Many had blood all over their faces and people were lying on the ground in all sorts of horrible positions. It's such a tragedy," he said.

Another worker, Gao Xuyou, was in the same hospital ward as Li Baoli. "The shockwave was like a strong wind carrying broken glass, bricks and concrete, which hit people working inside the factory too," said the 44-year-old.

Li Ming, 25, who was also working at the factory when the blast occurred, said, "The explosion was far more frightening than any scene in the Hollywood disaster movies I've watched."

He said cars were thrown several meters into the air, before being crushed under concrete paving slabs that had been wrenched from the sidewalks.

Li Ming was working in the part of the factory closest to Zhaitangdao street at the time of the explosion. He only escaped injury because he was standing between two large shipping containers. "They stopped the flying concrete. I don't think I would still be alive if they hadn't been there."

Following the explosion, water, electricity, natural gas and central heating services were suspended in the neighborhood. By Saturday night, however, water and electricity had been resumed in all areas, except for the epicenter of the blast.

Xue Jianzhu, 57, a lifelong Huangdao resident, said he had been unaware of the pipeline until Friday. He said Zhaitangdao street is often heavily congested by traffic, especially during the monthly market day.

"Also, Huangdao No. 2 middle school is not far from there. If the explosion had occurred when the students were on their way to or from school, the consequences could have been unthinkable," he said.

"Why didn't the authorites block the street and evacuate the residents, workers and students, when they clearly knew there was a leak on the pipeline?" asked Xue.

Angry residents

Other residents said the devastation could have been far worse if the nearby Lidong chemical plant hadn't suspended production on Friday for planned maintenance.

"The whole district might have been turned to ashes if the chemicals in the plant had exploded," said maintenance worker Lan Shoulian. The street looks like it was dug up by excavators, said the 45-year-old, who dragged a bloodstained man from his wrecked car in the aftermath of the blast.

Qingdao municipal government has announced that it will check all pipelines under the city and formulate an overall revamping plan to ensure that an accident to one pipeline will not affect the others, but that has failed to assuage the anger of some locals.

"I am furious. We knew nothing about the oil pipeline. It was a ticking time bomb and it has got to go," said Xue.

Yang Yang and Hu Qing contributed to the story

Qingdao continues recovery

President Xi Jinping visits a victim injured in the Friday pipeline blast at a hospital in Qingdao, Shandong province, on Sunday. Huang Jingwen / Xinhua

 

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