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Associated Press
Locals survey the damage from a massive gas explosion in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Friday.

Taiwan explosions probe focuses on petrochem firm

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Authorities in Taiwan’s second-biggest city were focusing on a petrochemical firm Saturday in their investigation into a series of gas pipeline explosions that killed 27 people and injured 267.

Five blasts tore through four streets in the city of Kaohsiung starting at around midnight Thursday, ripping apart streets, flinging cars into the air and blasting cement rubble at passers-by, many of whom were out late at a nearby night market.

The blasts have been traced to problems with a pipeline used by LCY Chemical Corp., a Taipei-based petrochemical firm, said Chen Chin-der, director of the Environmental Protection Bureau in Kaohsiung, and industrial port city. The pipeline was leaking nearly four tons of propene every hour as pressure dropped at around 8:45 p.m. Thursday, Chen said.

“The leak was very far from the explosions, because propene was leaking and spreading through the sewer system everywhere,” Chen said in a telephone interview. “When the density of propene is very high, anything can trigger explosion, anything as small as a cigarette, or starting the engine of a motor scooter.”

Propene is mainly used for making the plastic polypropylene, which is used in a wide variety of packaging, caps and films. It can be detected by its mildly unpleasant smell.

LCY Chemical Corp. said it would cooperate with the investigation. “Our priority is to figure out the truth and responsibility,” company spokeswoman Pan Lee-lin told a news conference.

The blasts occurred about three hours after a gas leak was reported, but emergency services were unable to locate the source of the leak. Some residents questioned the way the authorities handled the leak and subsequent blasts that left a 2-square-kilometer (1-square-mile) trail of destruction.

“It dragged on too long because they couldn’t identify the source,” one local resident told television channel TVBS. Five minutes before the explosions, he said, “they told us, “Everything is under control. You can go home and sleep.”’

Most of about 1,200 evacuees were allowed to return home late Friday.

The propene originated from a warehouse used by China General Terminal & Distribution Corp., which stores and transports petrochemical raw materials, officials have said.

Industrial-use pipelines run through Kaohsiung’s residential neighborhoods because industry preceded the construction of houses, said city spokesman Ting Yun-kung. Kaohsiung contains much of Taiwan’s heavy industry, especially petrochemicals, and the explosions were the city’s worst in 16 years.

The disaster was Taiwan’s second in as many weeks following the crash of a TransAsia Airways prop jet on the island of Penghu on July 23 that killed 48 people and injured 10.