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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gas Blast in South Korea Kills 100

TAEGU, South Korea -- Around 100 South Koreans, more than half of them schoolchildren, were killed in a rush-hour gas explosion Friday which hurled cars, trucks and steel plates through the air in a deadly hail.

A spokesman for the government's anti-disaster squad working at the scene in Taegu about 240 kilometers south of Seoul, said 99 people were confirmed killed in one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters.

State television and local media, quoting police, put the death toll at up to 110 with more than 200 injured.

Police said they feared dozens of commuters, and laborers who were working in an underground construction site for a new subway line, had been entombed in a water-filled pit.

Some 2,500 rescuers picked through the grisly debris in hope of finding survivors.

The blast sent vehicles vaulting through the air, and a temporary grid of steel plates the size of office desks flew like missiles over an area hundreds of meters wide, crushing and dismembering pedestrians.

"I heard a loud bang and flames rose about 50 meters into the air, taking with them steel plates," said a taxi driver.

Officials said the death toll would rise as many of the injured were in critical condition. Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo, after visiting the scene, said in a statement that more than half the dead were teenagers on their way to school.

He said the government extended its deep condolences.

"The fact that more than half of the victims were young students makes our hearts ache even more," he said.

At Yongnam Secondary School where 38 who students who lost their lives attended, relatives and colleagues gathered and cried "a sea of tears", the Yonhap news agency reported.

High school student Park Yoon-ho, 17, said he heard a loud explosion as he walked to school. "Then I was blown down by a gust that sent out a mushroom of dust. It looked like the explosion of an atomic bomb on television."

Witnesses said a sheet of flame erupted from the site and the blast shook buildings like an earthquake over a wide area. About 70 buildings were badly damaged and columns of black smoke rose amid piles of steel plates.

The blast fractured water pipes and water poured into the construction pit, delaying rescue work. The explosion also cut electricity in the area.

Gas suppliers said they suspect an excavator punctured a gas supply pipe. State radio said the explosion was apparently caused by welding work which set off gas leaking from a supply pipe. There was no independent confirmation.

It was the second fatal gas explosion in less than five months. In December, 12 people were killed by an underground gas explosion in a central district of Seoul.

It is also the latest in a chapter of disasters to plague South Korea. A bridge in central Seoul collapsed last October during the morning rush hour, killing more than 30 people.

A few days later a pleasure craft exploded into an inferno of flames on a lake, killing a similar number of people.

President Kim Young-sam, reeling from yet another man-made disaster during his term of office, ordered a swift probe and sent his prime minister to the scene.

"Government agencies should take the best possible course of action to ascertain the exact cause of the disaster and to control its aftermath," a spokesman quoted Kim as saying.