TAIPEI - A series of powerful gas blasts killed at least 22 people and injured up to 270 in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, overturning cars and ripping open roads, officials said Friday.
The explosions sparked a massive inferno that ripped through the city's Cianjhen district, sending terrified residents fleeing a huge ball of flames.
"The blasts late Thursday killed at least 22 people and left 270 others injured," the National Fire Agency said, adding that the injured were being rushed to hospitals across the port city.
Witnesses reported seeing dead bodies littered on the streets, with the fire still raging early Friday.
The explosions, believed to have been triggered by gas leaks, were powerful enough to upturn cars and tear open paved roads. One street had been split along its length, swallowing fire engines and cars.
"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," eyewitness Johnson Liu told AFP.
"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 exact cause of the gas leaks was still unclear.
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.
Kaohsiung's mayor Chen Chu earlier put the death toll at 15 and the fire agency said four firefighters were among those killed.
'My house shook'
"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.
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 power went out," she was quoted as saying by the Taiwan 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 were evacuating residents from the impacted areas and urged schools and offices in the area to provide shelter to those affected as they tried to locate the source of the leaks.
It was the second gas blast in Kaohsiung in recent years. In 1997, an explosion killed one person and injured 22 when a team of workers and technicians from Taiwan's state-run Chinese Petroleum Corp. (CPC) tried to unearth a section of gas pipeline in a road construction project.
The blasts 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.