Death toll rises to 23 in South Korea battery plant fire

Seoul, June 25 (IANS) Rescue workers retrieved one more body on Tuesday after a fire at a lithium battery plant in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, one of the worst chemical plant accidents in the country.

The retrieval increased the death toll to 23 from the fire that gutted lithium battery maker Aricell’s plant in Hwaseong, 45 kilometres south of Seoul, the previous day, Yonhap news agency reported.

Eight others also sustained injuries, two of them seriously.

Shortly before noon, rescuers pulled out the additional body, believed to belong to a worker who had remained missing, reportedly from under collapsed iron beams and other debris.

About 100 personnel and two rescue dogs were mobilised during the day for the search, which had continued since the previous day.

All deceased victims were found on the second floor of the plant, where the fire first started, while they were inspecting and packaging finished battery products.

Seventeen of the victims were Chinese, while five were Koreans, and one was Laotian, police said, updating the initial count of two Koreans by fire authorities.

A team of police, firefighters, forensic workers and other government officials launched a joint investigation at the fire site around noon to determine the cause of the accident.

Police have requested autopsies on the bodies to determine the cause of death.

The identities of only two Koreans among the victims have been confirmed so far, as the bodies of the others were severely destroyed in the fire and are beyond recognition.

“We plan to confirm the victims’ identities by collecting DNA from their bodies,” a police official said, adding that the process may take some time because they were mostly foreigners.

Following the investigation, rescue workers plan to resume their search inside the scorched plant to see if there are any other remaining victims.

Police also booked the head of the battery firm and four others for investigation on charges related to the deadly accident, including professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.

Overseas travel bans were also imposed on all of them as police investigated who should be held accountable for the disaster.

According to initial findings by fire authorities, Monday’s fire started at a storage and packaging area for primary lithium batteries supplied to the military for use in FM walkie-talkies.

Lithium is considered a relatively stable material, requiring no specific legal regulations for its handling in South Korea.

Lithium, however, can cause sparks if it comes into contact with rusted iron in the presence of flammable gas in the air, necessitating storage in a separate, dry space.



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