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80 feared killed in AP LPG blast

More than 80 people are feared dead in the worst-ever gas disaster in Andhra Pradesh.

Though government officials claimed that only 33 people were killed in the tragedy at the Visakhapatnam refinery on Sunday, unofficial sources said the toll has crossed 80. Among the dead are five Central Industrial Security Force personnel.

More than a hundred people are still trapped in the devastating fire that was triggered by a series of deafening explosions at the state-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited refinery. Twentyseven of the 50 injured are in a critical condition in various hospitals, including the King George Hospital and the navy's Kalyani.

Eyewitnesses said the impact of the blast was so great that the refinery's administrative building, its canteen and some other buildings came crashing down like a pack of cards. The explosion could be heard from miles away, and panic-stricken people living in the nearby naval and shipyard colonies were seen running helter-skelter.

A senior police official said the inferno could be seen from a distance of nearly 10 km even as late as Sunday evening. A cloud of black smoke enveloped the refinery-naval base-steel plant zone, and reports said the fire could not be brought under control more than 36 hours after it broke out.

Cancelling his engagements in New Delhi -- where he was to attend the ruling United Front's steering committee meeting on Monday -- Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu rushed to Visakhaptnam, where he undertook an aerial survey of the affected area on Monday.

Naidu later told a meeting of legislators and officials that he was horrified by the intensity of the blast and was convinced that a high-level inquiry should be ordered by the Union government. He said there were fears that official negligence could have caused the ''horrible'' accident.

When some of the people's representatives expressed doubts about the efficacy of such an inquiry, a visibly annoyed Naidu shot back, ''I will see that the Centre orders a high-level inquiry and completes it within 30 days.''

Quoting HPCL chairman H C Zutshi, Naidu said many more were feared buried under the burning debris. He said the fire would be put out latest by Tuesday morning.

Naidu also demanded that the Centre appoint an international consultant to suggest preventive measures and to insulate the refinery as it was located in the midst of residential localities.

Meanwhile, the people living around the refinery area including the three adjoining villages have been evacuated. Naidu said one lakh people were sheltered in relief camps and provided food and water by the local authorities.

The raging fire, which reached an alarming height of 70 ft on Sunday afternoon, seemed to ebb that night due to intermittent showers. Though the flames were brought down to 20 ft on Monday morning, they began leaping as the day temperature continued to rise.

The fire has affected the entire product terminal area, including 11 storage tanks containing naptha, petrol, diesel, kerosene and furnace oil, besides the six ''Horton spheres'' containing LPG.

Indian navy personnel were in the lead fighting the fire right at the head, sources said. An Oil and Natural Gas Corporation crisis management team that reached Visakhapatnam from the nearby Narsapur on Sunday night with two foam tenders and five tonnes of foam joined the 14-member fire-fighting team from Bombay.

Three Indian Airforce planes have brought 55 tonnes of foam, the key fire-fighting material, from Indian Oil Corporation's Koyali refinery in Gujarat.

The fire is believed to have been triggered by a vapour cloud formed during the discharge of LPG from one of the storage tanks at the refinery, the HPCL chairman said.

The HPCL officials were puzzled that the gas discharge continued for more than 12 hours, forming a vapour cloud which resulted in an explosion.

However, sources said the accident occurred due to a leakage in the 15-km-long pipeline carrying LPG from the Visakhapatnam port to the refinery.

A refinery spokesman told Rediff On The NeT that some officials noticed smoke emanating from the maintenance yard at about 6.15 am. In no time, one of the LPG tanks caught fire, triggering an explosion. Instantly, 10 other tanks storing fuel like petrol and diesel exploded.

However, officials claimed that ''there was no blast in any vessel''. They said the explosions were ''caused by the leaking vapour''.

''But for the officials's timely intervention -- they stopped fuel supply to the tanks from the pipelines -- there could not have been a major catastrophe,'' said the spokesman, adding that the refinery was safe.

This is the second major mishap at the 41-year-old refinery, the first being in November 1996, when two people died. The 41-year-old refinery re-opened on Saturday after a month-long shutdown for repairs.

Discounting rumours that the financial loss ranged between Rs 3 and Rs 5 billion, the HPCL chief said his company lost about Rs 400 million. However, the chief minister came up with a higher figure -- Rs 600 million. Though no figures about the loss to private property were available, Naidu said they would be adequately compensated.

The Oil Industry Safety Directorate's executive director, who had been instructed by the petroleum ministry to probe the fire, is expected to reach the refinery site late on Monday.

UNI and M S Shanker in Hyderabad

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