Nov 25, 2013 07:29 PM

Explosion Shattered Port City's Mid-Morning Calm


Workers attempt repairs about 7:30 a.m. on November 22, three hours before the blast. The photo was found on the mobile phone of a worker who was killed

(Qingdao) – It was like a horror movie.

On the sunny morning of November 22, at about 10:30 a.m., residents of Huangdao, a district of port city of Qingdao, went about their daily routines.

Two people set up a chess game on the sidewalk of Zhaitangdao Street and five others stood behind them watching. A few steps away, someone was negotiating the price of vegetables with a street vendor. Down the road, two men were unloading bags of rice from a truck.

Then, an explosion shattered the tranquil morning. The blast took place at the intersection of Qinghuangdao Road and Zhaidangdao Street. It left a gigantic crater.

From here, roads stretching 3.5 kilometers were torn up as sewage lines exploded. Cars were jolted into the air. People close to the street – the small crowd around the game, the vegetable buyer and vendor, those loading the truck and scores of others riding buses and working on the damaged pipeline – were killed or severely injured. The walls of the Lidong chemical factory were reduced to rubble. Several nitrogen tanks in the factory, which was 100 meters from the blast, were thankfully untouched. 

As of November 25, a total of 55 people are listed as dead. Some 166 were injured and nine people are missing. A special investigation team dispatched by the State Council, the country's cabinet, has already called the blast "a severe accident due to negligence."

Zhu Shibao, a worker at the chemical factory, remembers that he heard a series of explosions going off faster than firecrackers. Before he knew it he had been thrown into a wall and was unconscious. When he awoke, the building he was in was leveled. The nearby roads were destroyed and ambulances could not get to the factory.

Zhu was lucky. He was able to get himself out of the rubble and to the hospital where he is being treated. Six others in the chemical factory died.

Sewage lines in other Chinese cities have seen explosions on much smaller scales. Usually methane builds up and the result is a small blast and injured passers-by. But the oil leak in Qingdao had more serious consequences.

Officials say the accident was caused by a leak in an oil pipeline owned by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec). Petroleum then leaked into the city's sewage system. It is unclear what sparked the blast.

"This highlights that planning of the oil pipeline and city sewage system was not reasonable; the management of oil pipeline was lax; and the emergency measures after the leak were not appropriate," Yang Dongliang, the head of State Administration of Work Safety, said at a press conference in Qingdao on November 25.

While visiting a Qingdao hospital on November 24, the country's president, Xi Jinping, said accidents such as this one must be prevented in the future.

Fragments of News

Sinopec found the leak seven hours before the explosion. A statement issued by the state-owned oil giant said that in the early morning of November 22, the 27-year-old Donghuang pipeline cracked and oil spilled into the city's sewage system. (City officials say a different line was involved.) Some oil ended up in the sea. The company said it immediately shut down the oil pipeline and started repair work. 

Over the next few hours, reports of a problem began to trickle in to various city government departments.

Five hours after the leak, the maritime department received reports from port officials and the chemical factory that oil had spilled into the sea. An hour later, city environmental officials received reports about the leak. Environmental officials have not said where those reports originated.

It is unclear whether Sinopec reported the leak to the local government.

By 10:30 a.m., Huangdao residents were unaware of any leak.

The 1989 Disaster

The explosion points to a problem with China's rapid urbanization. As urban areas rapidly expand, oil and gas pipelines often border or even enter city limits. Many people are unaware they live above dangerous pipelines. 

Huangdao was once a remote suburb of Qingdao. Then in 1985 a state-level economic tech development zone was established. The district government and the development zone administration merged in 1992, and incorporated the nearby city of Jiaonan this year.

Huangdao is no stranger to blasts related to the petroleum industry. In August 1989, a blast killed 19 people and injured 72. In that incident, a tank in the Huangdao Oil Depot was hit by lightening and exploded. Hours later, four nearby tanks, each holding 10,000 tons of oil, blew up.

A massive blaze consumed 12 firefighting trucks and 4,000 square meters of residential housing. Some 600 tons of oil spilled into the sea. The total damage, including to fisheries, was estimated at 35 million yuan.

Afterward, a 42-member State Council investigation team said there were flaws in the design of the oil tanks, which went into use in 1973. The team's report didn't mention anything about the design of the oil depot or problems with fire prevention.

Huangdao now has two oil depots near each other. Their storage capacity doubled between 1976 and 1989. Some of the tanks were on a slope overlooking the production facilities. It doesn't take too much imagination to see that a fire involving the tanks would quickly spread to the production area.

Firefighters struggled to contain the 1989 explosion, and afterward they said prevention equipment installed on the tanks was poorly maintained.

Moreover, fire and explosion prevention guidelines issued by a central government ministry 17 months earlier were still sitting on a table in an office of a Sinopec subsidiary. They hadn't been given to workers or implemented.

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