A fire caused by a blast of natural gas at a shopping mall in the busiest commercial street in Luzhou, Sichuan province, on Thursday night, killed four and injured 40 people as of press time on Friday.
The dead included three men aged 22, 45 and 55, and a 25-year-old woman. One of the men was a security guard at the shopping mall. The woman had been watching a movie and died after inhaling toxic gas in the aftermath of the fire.
Xiao Zhe, another moviegoer, said many in the theatre thought the sound of the blast came from a 3-D film and did not get up to leave.
The fire, which broke out at about 10:40 pm, disrupted the natural gas supply in the city of more than 5 million people for 14 hours.
The cause of the blast was under investigation, although some believed it happened when workers were repairing natural gas pipelines, according to Wang Tianquan, an information officer in the city.
According to Huang Cheng, an employee of the Huitong Department Store opposite the Mo'erma Shopping Mall: "I was preparing New Year's gifts for VIP clients of our store when I heard the deafening sound of a blast. Somebody shouted, 'Mo'erma Shopping Mall had a blast, and it caught fire,' I fled and saw flames and black smoke coming from the first three floors of Mo'erma."
Liu Kunfu, a resident of the city, was passing by the shopping mall with his 4-year-old grandson. Shattered glass from the six-story mall buried him up to his waist. He was rescued about a half-hour later when firefighters and ambulances arrived.
"My grandson was unscathed, as I covered and protected him with my body," said the 49-year-old, who received treatment for bruises and lacerations in the lobby of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital attached to Luzhou Medical College.
As of late Friday, smoke was still coming from the shopping mall, whose windows were gone. Onlookers gawked outside caution tape around the darkened mall. Fire engines surrounded the centre.
"After the blast, firefighters arrived at the scene and used water blast guns to extinguish the flames. The water from the guns shattered all the glass," said Wu Jie, 27, a cleaner.
Dozens of cleaners were sleepless Thursday night waiting for the order to clean up the glass, he said.
The injured were being treated in four hospitals in Luzhou.
Tan Zhiping, 28, was one of 12 injured people taken to the Hospital Attached to Luzhou Medical College. She suffered a fracture on her right hand.