Blasts kill at least 18 in northern China

Friday, March 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Explosions at three workers' dormitories in a northern Chinese city killed at least 18 people Friday and reduced one building to rubble, state media and fire officials said.

The three blasts, spread over an hour and several miles apart, struck dormitories for two separate cotton mills and a railroad company in the city of Shijiazhuang, said the city fire official, who gave only his surname, Liu.

Liu said deaths and injuries was still being counted, but the official Xinhua News Agency said 18 people were killed. Shijiazhuang, an industrial center and the capital of Hebei province, is about 170 miles southwest of Beijing.

The first blast nearly flattened a five-story dormitory that housed 48 families at the No. 3 Cotton Mill, Liu said. Firefighters rushed to the scene after receiving a call at 4:16 a.m. local time.

``The building was almost completely collapsed,'' Liu said. Other firefighters said people were still trapped in the rubble Friday evening.

About 15 minutes later, a second explosion struck another five-story dormitory housing 15 families at the nearby No. 1 Cotton Mill, according to Liu.

The third explosion hit a dormitory, also five stories tall, where 15 families lived at a city-run railroad company. That blast was reported at 5:10 a.m., Liu said.

A city official said the death toll at the No. 3 Mill dormitory was rising, but he wouldn't give a figure.

There were no deaths and only slight injuries at the railroad dormitory and the No. 1 Mill dormitory, said the official, who would give only his surname, Hou.

``There wasn't much damage,'' he 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, in a different neighborhood.

More than 40 people were rescued from the wreckage, Liu said. He said rescue operations had finished at the No. 1 Cotton Mill, but firefighters were still searching through debris at the other sites late Friday afternoon.

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, despite government efforts to restrict their use.

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 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.