DANDONG (China): Two trains that collided triggering a massive blast in North Korea were carrying explosives and not fuel, while casualty figures appeared to be lower than originally feared, an international Red Cross official said yesterday.
The number of dead was at least 54, and 1,249 people were injured, said John Sparrow, a Red Cross spokesman in Beijing, but he expected the toll to rise as many buildings around the crash site were destroyed.
Initial reports had said as many as 3,000 people were killed or hurt.
Secretive communist North Korea remained silent on the disaster near the Chinese border, despite confirmation of Thursday afternoon's blast in the bustling town of Ryongchon by the governments in Seoul and Beijing.
The explosion levelled the train station, a school and apartments within a 500m radius, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, quoting Chinese witnesses.
There were about 500 passengers and railway officials in the station at the time of the blast, it said.
China's official news agency Xinhua said the blast also knocked down more than 20 houses.
There were conflicting reports on the cause of the explosion.
South Korea's Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said yesterday that it was triggered by a collision of fuel-laden trains.
Xinhua, without citing sources, said the leaking of ammonium nitrate in one of the trains caused the blast. Ammonium nitrate is used in some explosives.
However, the Red Cross spokesman said yesterday that the trains were carrying explosives similar to those used in mining.
An Irish aid worker based in Pyongyang said yesterday that the blast might have been caused when train carriages laden with dynamite blew up.
“They (North Korean authorities) have said that 150 people died in the explosion, including some schoolchildren ? and over 1,000 people were injured,” said Concern regional director Ann O'Mahony.
“What they (the government) have said is that two carriages of a train carrying dynamite ? they were trying to disconnect the carriages and link them up to another train ? they got caught in the overhead electric wiring.”
“The dynamite exploded and that was the cause of the explosion,” she said.
There was no sign in Dandong, the Chinese border city nearest to the crash site, of injured people being brought out of North Korea.
But the city's three biggest hospitals were preparing for a possible surge of patients.
“We're ready to offer our close neighbour our best medical help anytime,” an official at Dandong Chinese Hospital said.
North Korea declared an emergency in the area while cutting off international telephone lines to prevent crash details from leaking out, the South's Yonhap agency reported.
The North's official KCNA news agency still had not mentioned the disaster by yesterday, a full day later.
The blast reportedly occurred nine hours after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il passed through the station on his way home from a three-day visit to China.
The British Broadcasting Corporation showed on its website what it claimed to be a black-and-white satellite photo taken 18 hours after the reported explosion. The photo showed huge clouds of black smoke billowing from the alleged blast site.
South Korea's acting President Goh Kun ordered his government to prepare assistance if necessary. The country's Red Cross also said they were prepared to offer food and clothes if requested. – Agencies