A massive explosion tore apart a chemical plant in eastern China on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 62 people and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.
Some 640 people at the plant as well as in 16 surrounding factories, homes and schools in the area were injured, with 90 of them in serious condition.
The blast that occurred at Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Company, near Yancheng city in eastern Jiangsu province, at around 3pm on Thursday was so powerful that the entire factory complex was completely destroyed, with the roofs blown off. Buildings nearby collapsed and houses as far as 15km away had their windows shattered.
It was believed to have caused a tremor equivalent to a small earthquake of 2.2 magnitude, registered by China's earthquake administration in Lianyungang, a city nearby.
The local authorities yesterday said they have detained executives at the plant and moved more than 3,000 workers and around 1,000 residents to safe places.
Meanwhile, classes at the nearly 10 schools in the area will be suspended.
According to the local environmental protection authority, toxic chemicals in the air are being dissipated by favourable wind conditions. Drinking water safety has also not been compromised, it added.
However, some residents have fled out of fear of toxic air, a resident told The New York Times.
Professor Wan Pingyu of the Beijing University of Chemical Technology told state broadcaster CCTV that the leak of toxic chemicals might have affected the surrounding environment.
The cause of the blast is still being investigated but Chinese media has reported that a truck carrying natural gas had caught fire, igniting a storage area for benzene, a highly inflammable and toxic chemical.
Set up in 2007, the factory mainly produces pesticides and has a record of environmental and safety violations. It has been fined six times in the past three years for air pollution and solid waste management violations, Beijing News reported.
In February last year, a government safety inspection found 13 hidden safety hazards, including a leaking valve on its storage tank.
This industrial town in Jiangsu province, the country's main producer of agricultural chemicals, is no stranger to accidents.
According to Chinese media reports, in November 2007, an explosion at another chemical plant in the same industrial park killed eight people and injured many others. Separately, a chemical leak at a factory in November 2010 poisoned more than 30 workers at another plant nearby.
And in 2011, a late-night rumour of an imminent explosion at a factory sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing, leading to four people being killed in a traffic accident.
The biggest industrial accident in China in recent years took place when a series of chemical explosions in August 2015 in the northern port city of Tianjin killed more than 160 people and injured nearly 800 others.
Yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a directive for rescue operations and investigation of the blast while on a state visit in Italy.
He said "no efforts should be spared" in rescuing trapped people and treating the injured, and relief work must be carried out well to maintain social stability. He told the authorities to learn lessons from the blast to prevent such mega accidents from happening in future.
The central government also set up an investigation team and named Deputy Minister of Emergency Management Huang Ming as its head.
SOME INDUSTRIAL DISASTERS
Here are some of China's worst industrial accidents in recent years.
BEIJING LAB EXPLOSION
Three students were killed in a laboratory blast at a Beijing university in an accident that blew out windows and left the building a blackened shell. A research experiment on wastewater treatment caused the explosion.
ZHANGJIAKOU GAS LEAK
A gas leak at a plant in the northern city of Zhangjiakou - among the host locations for the 2022 Winter Olympics - killed 24 people and injured 21 others.
Leaked chloroethylene came in contact with a fire source causing the explosion, the authorities said in a February report that revealed the chemical firm responsible for the accident had concealed information and misled investigators. The authorities cited the company's lack of safety measures and "chaotic" management as among factors leading to the blast.
SICHUAN CHEMICAL PLANT
A blast at a chemical plant in south-west Sichuan province left 19 dead and 12 injured. The company had undertaken illegal construction that had not passed safety checks, according to the local authorities.
Giant chemical blasts at a container storage facility killed at least 165 people in the northern port city of Tianjin. The explosions caused more than US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) in damage and sparked widespread anger at a perceived lack of transparency over the accident's causes and its environmental impact.