The island’s second city Kaohsiung has been hit by a series of explosions caused by a gas leak that killed 25 people and injured 267.
Flames leapt 15 storeys into the air, setting buildings on fire. Reports said that a district of the port city packed with shops and apartment buildings was gutted by the fire.
According to local authorities, police and soldiers were drafted in to help firefighters. Four firefighters were among the dead, Reuters reported. And local media suggested the death toll was likely to rise sharply.
Taiwan’s National Fire Agency said that gas leaks caused a series of blasts and fires in an area of “about two to three square kilometres”.
President Ma Ying-jeou pledged tough measures to prevent any recurrence of the incident. “We will make further arrangements and inspections to avoid this kind of disaster from occurring again,” Ma said in comments shown on television after speaking via a video link with Kaohsiung’s mayor.
According to reports, an explosion sent flames racing through the district and smoke billowing high into the air. Flames shot up from sewers and gutters and water from burst mains gushed through the streets.
Residents said the blast shook buildings as if there had been an earthquake, toppling small shops and overturning cars, Reuters reported.
Rescuers formed a chain to pull dozens of injured from a vast crater in the street and picked their way through piles of rubble as they ferried the injured away on stretchers, Reuters reported.
Those overcome by smoke were resuscitated in the street. “We’ve already taken some seriously injured into the emergency room,” a doctor told a local television station, without giving his name.
Kaohsiung authorities said they set up a “forward command post” and emergency response centres. By morning, firefighters had regained control of the district and were moving in protective white gear through streets covered in upturned asphalt and smashed vehicles.
The National Fire Agency said firefighters were investigating reports of gas leaks, as the cause of the explosions remains unclear.
Economic minister Chang Chia-juch told reporters initial assessments suggested the blast was caused by a leak of propylene, a material used in the production of plastics and fabrics.