Updated: 07-31-2004 11:21:06 AM

Natural Gas Explosion Kills At Least Five Firefighters in Belgium
Gas Line Pierced by Construction Workers; More Than 100 Injured

Associated Press Writer

ATH, Belgium (AP) -- Belgian government offices across the country flew their flags at half-staff Saturday, and King Albert II led mourning for the dead after a spectacular gas line explosion killed at least 15 people and injured 120.

Residents of Ath piled up flowers outside the town's volunteer fire station, which lost five firefighters in the blast, while medical experts worked on identifying the dead at a morgue set up in a local school.

``It was the apocalypse, we couldn't see anything or anyone, and then we began to find the bodies scattered around the area, completely carbonized,'' said firefighter Patrick Chevalier, who arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion. ``One colleague we recognized straight away by his shoulder badge, but it wasn't possible to identify others.''

Three people remained missing, including one police officer, after the Friday morning blast in an industrial area just outside the village of Ghislenghien, six miles northeast of Ath.

Some 50 people remained in serious condition, including four burn victims on life support in a coma at a military hospital outside Brussels, officials said. Another two were fighting for their lives at an Antwerp hospital. Many of the injured suffered severe burns and were being treated at special burn units in Belgium and in the nearby city of Lille, France and in Paris.

The blast occurred after firefighters came to the scene to investigate a report from construction workers who said they had damaged the underground gas link.

The thunderous blast was heard miles away and sent a towering wall of orange flame soaring into the sky in a series of mushrooming balls of fire. The blast incinerated a swath of large buildings in the industrial park, hurling bodies more than 100 yards into nearby wheat fields and leaving everything within a 400-yard radius melted or badly burned.

The mood was subdued in Ath and flags were flying at half-staff on the gray town hall as the king, who cut short his vacation in Spain, arrived at the town's main square. Before he arrived, a wedding went ahead as planned at the town hall, but guests were told not to throw confetti in respect for the dead.

After greeting a silent crowd, Albert went into the town hall to attend a meeting of rescue workers.

He also spent half an hour consoling families of victims behind closed doors. ``I can't smile today,'' the visibly shaken king told a bystander as he left the meeting.

Albert, along with the defense and interior minister, also spent half an hour at the blast site, at Ghislenghien, 20 miles southeast of Brussels. He talked with firefighters and rescue workers at the devastated industrial park, where investigators continued collecting evidence to find out the exact cause of the explosion.

The king was expected to visit the fire station and injured victims at a hospital in Ath later Saturday.

At the station, Chevalier and his colleagues sat in silent groups, flipping through newspaper coverage of the disaster.

``We need to look at them again and again, it helps us,'' Chevalier, 41, said.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and several of his ministers visited the site late Friday.

``The accident constitutes for our country a national catastrophe, and the toll is a heavy one,'' Verhofstadt said. He ordered flags to be flown at half-staff and declared a national day of mourning when the victims are buried.

Gas distributor Fluxys said the pipeline runs from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to France. The blast occurred about a half-hour after the leak was first reported.

Firefighter unions urged the government Saturday to come up with stricter rules to monitor gas lines as well as standard rules on how to handle leaks, especially if they happen at construction sites.

Associated Press correspondent Constant Brand contributed to this report from Brussels.

Photo beolw
AP Photo/Stijn Defrene

Flames erupt from a building in Ghislenghien, Belgium, after a gas explosion Friday July 30, 2004. An explosion Friday at a gas works outside Brussels killed at least 10 people and injured numerous others, including firefighters and police responding to the blast, authorities said.