Two dead, five missing after explosion hits German chemicals site

Emergency responders battle back blaze after explosion rocks chemical complex in Leverkusen.

The cause of the explosion is not yet known [Anna Fross/via Reuters]

An explosion at a chemical park in western Germany left two people dead and five missing on Tuesday, the site operator said, but a warning for residents to stay indoors was lifted after several hours.

At least 31 people were injured, one of them critically, in the blast that rocked the Chempark complex in the city of Leverkusen at around 09:40 am (07:40 GMT), site operator Currenta said.

All of those affected worked at the site.

In an updated toll in the evening, Currenta said a second body had been found by rescue crews. It also revised upwards the number of missing employees from three to five.

“The search for the missing continues at full speed. Sadly, hopes of finding them alive are dwindling,” said Chempark head Lars Friedrich

The cause of the explosion, which was heard several kilometres away and sent a column of black smoke into the air, was not yet known.

Germany’s NINA warning app sent an “extreme danger” alert to residents, telling them to stay home and shut doors and windows for most of the day.

The explosion happened at Chempark’s waste incineration site in Leverkusen’s Buerrig district.

The area is separate from the main industrial park nearby that houses numerous chemical companies including Bayer, Lanxess and Evonik Industries.

‘Tragic accident’

“We are deeply saddened by this tragic accident,” said Chempark’s Friedrich.

Experts were racing to identify the composition of the smoke, he told journalists. Asked whether the cloud might contain toxic gases, Friedrich declined to speculate but said nothing could be ruled out.

Uwe Richrath, the city’s mayor, said it was “a dark day for the people of Leverkusen”.

The Chempark site houses chemical companies including Bayer and Lanxess [Leon Kuegeler/Reuters]

Playgrounds in the city’s Buerrig and Opladen neighbourhoods would be closed, he said. Residents were also advised not to eat fruit and vegetables from their garden.

By Tuesday evening, the city of Leverkusen said measurements of pollution levels taken throughout the day “were unremarkable”, allowing the warning to shelter indoors to gradually be lifted.

The last people to get the all-clear were those living closest to the blast zone in Leverkusen’s Buerrig district.

Locals were however told not to touch or try to clean away any soot particles they might find, until further analysis by experts.

‘A moment of real concern’

Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from the capital, Berlin, described the incident as a “moment of real concern” for local authorities in and around Leverkusen.

“An explosion such as this at an industrial and chemical plant really had the potential for very serious damage indeed,” he said.

“It appears as though … the real worry that there might have been some poisonous cloud appears not to have been well founded,” he added.

“But clearly this is a matter of very serious concern for the authorities … and the number of people who have been caught up in this.”

The city of Leverkusen said in a statement that the blast occurred in storage tanks for solvents [Roberto Pfeil/AFP]

The explosion had sparked a fire in tanks used as storage for liquid solvents awaiting incineration, Friedrich said.

The blaze took several hours to put out, with firefighters from nearby Cologne called in to help.

Three of the tanks “were completely or partially destroyed”, Friedrich said, making it impossible to tell for now where the explosion started.

Herbert Reul, North Rhine-Westphalia state’s interior minister, said 300 firefighters narrowly managed to prevent another tank exploding, which contained poisonous waste.

Large numbers of police, firefighters and rescue crews were at the scene for much of the day, as well as pollution-detection experts.

Police in Cologne said they temporarily closed several motorways and told drivers to avoid the area.

Locals shared images on social media of the black cloud rising into the air, with some saying their windows were rattled by the force of the explosion.

According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine, the blast was measured as far as 40km (25 miles) away.

Leverkusen, on the eastern bank of the Rhine river, lies about 20km (12 miles) north of Cologne in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It has a population of more than 160,000 people.

According to Currenta, the Chempark chemicals complex is one of the largest in Europe, with more than 70 companies based at its three sites.

The chemical incident comes as Germany is reeling from historic floods earlier this month that left at least 180 people dead in North Rhine-Westphalia and neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate state.

Leverkusen too saw heavy flooding that damaged homes and cars.

“Corona, then the floods, now the explosion,” wrote Twitter user Nico, from the nearby town of Leichlingen. “Enough now.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies