Powerful Taiwan gas explosions kill 24, injure 271

People take pictures of a crater caused by a blast in the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
People take pictures of a crater caused by a blast in the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A blast rips through the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A blast rips through the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Residents carry a wounded person following a blast in the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Residents carry a wounded person following a blast in the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan early on August 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A blast rips through the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan late on July 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A blast rips through the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan late on July 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Wreckage of a damaged car is pictured after an explosion in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on August 1, 2014. Gas leaks triggered a series of powerful explosions in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, killing at least 20 people and injuring u
Wreckage of a damaged car is pictured after an explosion in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on August 1, 2014. Gas leaks triggered a series of powerful explosions in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, killing at least 20 people and injuring up to 270, officials said on Friday, warning that the toll is expected to rise. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - Gas leaks triggered a series of powerful explosions in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, killing at least 24 people and injuring up to 271, officials said on Friday, warning that the toll is expected to rise.

The explosions sparked a massive inferno that ripped through the city’s Cianjhen district, sending terrified residents fleeing a huge ball of flames.

“The blasts late Thursday killed at least 24 people and left 271 others injured,” the National Fire Agency said, adding that the injured were being rushed to various hospitals in the port city.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing dead bodies littered on the streets.

The explosions, believed to have been triggered by gas leaks, were powerful enough to upturn cars and rip open paved roads.

“The explosions were like thunder and the road in front of my shop ripped open. It felt like an earthquake,” Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted an eyewitness as saying.

The exact cause of the gas leaks that triggered the explosions is still unclear.

Residents were seen carrying the injured on makeshift stretchers as ambulances rushed to the scene and firefighters in yellow overalls began removing bodies from the area.

Kaohsiung’s mayor Chen Chu earlier put the death toll at 15 and the fire agency said four firefighters were among those killed.  

- ‘My house shook’ -

“The local fire department received calls of gas leaks late on Thursday and then there were a series of blasts around midnight affecting an area of two to three square kilometres,” the fire agency said in a statement.

One local resident surnamed Peng said: “There was a heavy odour of gas and... then I heard explosions and saw fire spurting from a store.” “My house shook as if there were an earthquake and power went out,” she was quoted as saying by the Taiwan Central News Agency.

Local media reported that emergency rooms in Kaohsiung city hospitals were packed with casualties and officials warned that the death toll was expected to rise.

The local government were evacuating residents from the impacted areas and urged schools and offices in the area to provide shelter to those affected as they tried to locate the source of the leaks.

Thursday’s inferno came just a week after a TransAsia Airways plane crash in Taiwan left 48 people dead.

The plane carrying 54 passengers and four crew on a domestic flight plunged into houses in Magong in offshore Penghu islands in stormy weather after a typhoon pounded Taiwan. Two French nationals were among the dead.

In 2012, a man started a fire in a nursing home in southern Tainan city that killed 13 people and injured 60 others.

In 2011, four people were killed and 38 others injured when a truckload of firecrackers exploded in northern Taiwan.

The blast, which destroyed a dozen houses, occurred as the truck driver was unloading the firecrackers near a paper shop in New Taipei City