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Questions emerge over 'faults' in fire department reaction to leaky gasline

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Of the 26 who died as a result of yesterday's gas explosions in Kaohsiung, at least four were firefighters at the scene of the accident while others were either people traveling through the area or local residents.

Some of the questions media pundits were asking yesterday included: “Why wasn't the scene of the accident evacuated beforehand?” And “Were there flaws in the fire department's standard operating procedures that led to the deaths of the firefighters?”

A netizen yesterday posted an article online, claiming to be one of the residents affected by the blasts. Apparently, the netizen called the Kaohsiung City Government's 1999 hotline and was told that the situation was “under control” five minutes before the explosions began.

When asked, the director of the call center said that according to standard operating procedures, when the call center receives reports of an incident, staffers immediately notify police and firefighters; once police and firefighters arrive at the scene, the situation is regarded as being “under control.”

In his description of the event, the netizen said he detected a pungent odor in his apartment at around 8 p.m., and that the smell seemed to be coming from across the street at a light rail construction site. The netizen said he and his family immediately left the apartment and discovered that the odor seemed to be stronger near manholes and storm drains.

The netizen said he saw firefighters hosing down a “large pipe,” which was emitting “white smoke,” and that there didn't seem to be any improvements by 11 p.m.

The netizen apparently called the city government's hotline and was told that the situation was “under control” and that it was fine for residents to “go home and sleep.” Five minutes later, there was the tremendous sound of the explosion and the ground trembled, the netizen said, adding that he and his family ran and heard more blasts.

The fact that more than 300 people were killed or injured indicates that the area was not evacuated, and although the area was cordoned off, the radius was clearly not large enough. The authorities had several hours to do so. Were the pipelines cut off in the area? Were residents told to extinguish all possible ignition sources? As more facts emerge, the cause of the incident will become clearer, and hopefully, the relevant authorities will be able to identify whatever shortcomings there were, if indeed there were any, and prevent such tragedies from happening again.

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