A series of powerful gas blasts killed at least 25 people and injured up to 267 Friday in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, overturning cars and ripping up roads as terrified residents fled an inferno.
The explosions sparked massive fires which tore through the city's Cianjhen district, leaving a yawning trench running for hundreds of metres down the middle of a major thoroughfare and littering the streets with dead bodies.
Dramatic video footage captured by dashboard cameras inside cars showed multiple blasts and pillars of flame erupting from manholes as drivers frantically tried to avoid being engulfed.
In its latest update, the National Fire Agency said the blasts killed at least 25 people and revised the number of injured to 267. Four firefighters who rushed to the scene after residents smelled gas were among those killed in the blasts.
The explosions, believed to have been triggered by gas leaking from underground pipelines, were powerful enough to upturn whole cars and split open paved roads. One street had been ripped along its length, swallowing several fire engines and other vehicles.
Witnesses reported seeing bodies strewn across the streets of Taiwan's second largest city, which lies adjacent to a huge petrochemical complex housing dozens of petrochemical plants.
"I saw fire soaring up to possibly 20 storeys high after a blast and fire engines and cars being blown away while around 10 bodies lay on the street," witness Johnson Liu told AFP.
Local television aired footage from a dashboard camera capturing a loud explosion which tore up the road in front of a blue truck as it waited at a junction. Rocks and debris could be seen showering down on the street before the footage faded to black.
Bodies are seen covered after an explosion in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. (Reuters photo)
'Scared to death'
A second dashboard camera uploaded online showed a car frantically making a u-turn after the initial explosion only to hurtle towards another inferno coming up from beneath the road.
"I'm scared to death", one of the occupants was recorded saying. "It's like a bombing, let's hurry."
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.
"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 a witness as saying.
The fire agency said four firefighters were among those killed while 22 were injured and two were unaccounted for.
"The local fire department received calls of gas leaks late 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.
A Kaohsiung city government official said the blazes had mostly been extinguished or burned themselves out by mid Friday morning but a few fires were continuing. City authorities said they had sealed off six kilometres (3.7 miles) of road.
Wreckage of a car is pictured after an explosion in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. (Reuters photo)
Residents described how the neighbourhood smelt strongly of gas before the disaster.
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 the power went out," she was quoted as saying by Taiwan's 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 was evacuating more than 1,100 residents from the affected areas to schools and shelters as they tried to locate the source of the leaks and warned people to stay away.
The military dispatched around 1,400 soldiers to the scene to help with the disaster effort.
It is not the first time Kaohsiung has experienced a fatal gas blast. In 1997, an explosion killed five people and injured around 20 when a team from Taiwan's state-run Chinese Petroleum Corp. (CPC) tried to unearth a section of gas pipeline in a road construction project.
Friday's explosions were the second disaster to strike Taiwan in just over a week, after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed with the loss of 48 people last Wednesday.