South Korea battery plant explosion kills at least 22 people

At least 22 people have been killed after a powerful explosion and fire tore through a lithium battery factory in South Korea.

Over 100 people were working in the factory in Hwaseong city, south of the capital Seoul, when the fire broke out on Monday, firefighter Kim Jin-young said.

Eighteen Chinese workers and one Laotian were among the dead. The nationality of the remaining deceased worker has not yet been confirmed, the firefighter told local media.

Kim Jae-ho, a professor of fire and disaster prevention at Daejeon University, said the flames had probably spread too quickly for workers to escape.

“Battery materials such as nickel are easily flammable,” he said. “So often, there is not enough time to respond, compared to a fire caused by other materials.”

The blaze began at 10.31am local time after a series of battery cells exploded inside a warehouse with some 35,000 units, Mr Kim, the firefighter, said. The cause of the explosion remains unclear, he added.

Images shared by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency showed huge plumes of billowing grey smoke rising into the sky above the factory, with orange flames inside the building.

Firefighters work at putting the fire out in the factory in Hwaseong city,
Parts of the upper level of the factory had collapsed and large chunks of the building looked like they had been blown out - Hong Ki-won/AP
The flames had probably spread too quickly for workers to escape, an expert said
The flames had probably spread too quickly for workers to escape, an expert said - Kim Hong-ji/REUTERS

Witnesses saw firefighters taking up to six bodies out of the factory. Due to the intensity of the blaze, rescuers were finding it difficult to identify the dead, Mr Kim added.

Two people were being treated for major burns, officials at the scene said.

Live TV footage showed firefighters spraying the damaged steel and concrete building.

Parts of the upper level had collapsed, and large chunks of the building looked like they had been blown out into the street by an explosion.

Aerial footage showed massive smoke clouds billowing from the structure.

Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea’s president, was monitoring the situation, his office said, while Lee Sang-min, the interior minister, called on the local authorities to take steps to prevent any hazardous chemicals from contaminating the surroundings.

Authorities in Hwaseong sent out a series of alerts to residents warning them to stay inside.

“There is a lot of smoke due to factory fires. Please pay attention to safety, such as refraining from going out,” one alert sent by text message said.

“Factory fire. Please detour to surrounding roads and nearby citizens please close windows,” another one read.

The lithium battery plant is owned by Aricell, a South Korean primary battery manufacturer.

Lithium batteries are used in everything from laptops to electric vehicles - but can be highly explosive, with airlines, for example, imposing strict regulations on checking devices containing them.