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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Explosion Devastates Chinese Town

BEIJING -- An explosion of illegally stored dynamite obliterated a central China apartment building and devastated much of its neighborhood, killing more than 100 residents and injuring hundreds, officials said Friday.

The blast erupted in an illegal explosives warehouse in the building's basement Wednesday evening.

The cause was 10 tons of military dynamite which building resident He Geng, a furloughed worker who ran an illegal explosives firm, had stored in the basement, the television news said. He was believed to be among those killed in the blast.

"It was terrifying," a rescue coordinator said by telephone from City-South Town, a suburb of Shaoyang city in central Hunan province where the explosion hit just after supper time. "At first we thought it was an earthquake."

Television footage showed hundreds of soldiers, police and volunteers clawing by hand and with hand tools and bulldozers through the rubble of City-South Town on Wednesday night and Thursday. Doctors waited with oxygen bags to treat survivors.

"The entire street has been levelled," a local television official said by telephone.

All that remained of the five-story apartment block was a crater 30 meters across and 10 meters deep, the official Hunan Daily reported Friday.

The official toll stood at 77 dead but was certain to rise above 100 as soldiers pulled bodies from the rubble of several collapsed five-story buildings, the rescue official said.

"Workers are still digging through the rubble and expect to find more bodies. We do not expect to find more survivors," he said Friday. "The death toll will rise above 100."

He said a final tally was made more difficult by the failure of many migrant workers to register their residency.

More than 400 people were injured and 117 were admitted to hospitals in serious condition, the Hunan Daily said. It added that everything within 100 meters was flattened, including the homes of 40 families, and windows were shattered within a two-kilometer radius.

"Our offices are a kilometer away, but it blew out all of our windows," the rescue official said.

Provincial experts had joined an inquiry into what the Hunan Daily called an "extraordinarily serious accident."

Television news said investigators were still trying to determine what sparked the explosion, which cut water and electricity. The blast hit the town of 200,000 just before 8:00 p.m. Many survivors were unconscious and suffered broken bones, doctors said. Others were hurt in a rain of bricks, metal and glass or from the sheer force of the blast.

"Most of our patients were either crushed or struck by flying masonry," one doctor said.

What were expected to be the last two survivors were extricated late Thursday -- 20 hours after the blast, said a doctor at No. 2 People's Hospital.

Doctors said they expected few hospital deaths. "Most of our 80 patients are out of danger," said a doctor at No. 1 People's Hospital. "Most suffered blast-related injuries to the face, arms and body."

Officials said dynamite merchant He Geng had received a large consignment of explosives in lieu of money from a cash-strapped debtor and stored them illegally in the basement.

It is not uncommon for private mining families in China to store explosives and detonators in their homes, contributing to a nationwide plague of mining accidents.

The province of Hunan is dotted by private mines.