18 Killed in China Blast

Friday, March 16th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

SHIJIAZHUANG, China (AP) -Three explosions within an hour ripped through separate workers' dormitories in this northern Chinese city on Friday, killing at least 18 people and reducing one building to rubble, state media and fire officials said.

The blasts struck dormitories for two cotton mills and a railroad company, said the city's fire official, who gave only his surname, Liu. The three five-story dormitories were several miles apart in Shijiazhuang, an industrial center and the capital of Hebei province about 170 miles southwest of Beijing.

Liu said the deaths and injuries were still being counted, and that 40 people had been rescued from the wreckage. But the official Xinhua News Agency said 18 people had been killed.

Officers sealed off the explosion sites and scores of police cars cruised the streets. Hundreds of officers stood in groups of three and four in rows across streets scrutinizing passing vehicles.

Police tried to stop reporters from reaching Shijiazhuang, stopping cars at a toll gate off the highway from Beijing and ordering drivers to turn back. Two dozen taxis were idling at the gate late Friday while drivers were interrogated about their passengers.

The cause of the blasts was under investigation. Explosions, both accidental and deliberate, are common in China. While firearms are strictly controlled, industrial explosives are readily available.

Muslim separatists in western China have carried out bombings and assassinations in a campaign against Chinese rule. Elsewhere in China, bombings have been blamed on disgruntled workers, jilted lovers, blackmailers and others.

The first and most damaging blast on Friday nearly flattened a dormitory that housed 48 families at the No. 3 Cotton Mill. Firefighters received a call about the fire at 4:16 a.m. local time, Liu said.

``The building was almost completely collapsed,'' he said.

People were still trapped in the rubble Friday evening and rescue efforts were under way, firefighters said.

A city official who would only give his surname, Hou, said the death toll from the blast was rising but wouldn't give an exact figure.

About 15 minutes after the first explosion, a second blast struck a dormitory housing 15 families at the nearby No. 1 Cotton Mill, according to Liu.

Another explosion about 40 minutes later hit the third dormitory, where 15 families lived at a city-run railroad company, Liu said.

The blasts at the No. 1 Cotton Mill and railroad dormitories caused little damage and only light injuries, Hou said.

The cotton mill dormitories were on the same block, across the street from their factories, though not side by side, said Liu. The railway dormitory was 3 1/2 miles away.

Rescue operations had finished at the No. 1 Cotton Mill, but firefighters were still searching through debris at the other sites late Friday afternoon, Liu said.

The Shijiazhuang blasts came 10 days after an explosion at an elementary school in the southern province of Jiangxi killed at least 42 people, mostly children.

Premier Zhu Rongji blamed the March 6 explosion on a lone madman who he said carried explosives into the school and detonated them. Parents blamed fireworks manufacturing at the school, although Zhu said there was no evidence to support their account.

The blast, coming during the Chinese legislature's annual session, embarrassed Communist Party leaders who have repeatedly called for efforts to tackle China's safety problems.

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