22 people including 18 Chinese nationals killed in massive fire at South Korea battery factory

“The dead included 20 foreigners,” fire official Kim Jin-young said.

Seoul:

A massive fire at a lithium battery factory in South Korea killed 22 people – including 18 Chinese nationals – the fire department said on Monday, in one of the country’s worst factory accidents in years.

More than 100 people were working at the factory when workers heard explosions from the second floor, where lithium-ion batteries were being checked and packaged, fire official Kim Jin-young told media.

He said 22 people were killed in the massive fire, including 20 foreign nationals – 18 Chinese, one from Laos and one of unknown nationality.

“Most of the bodies are badly burnt, so it will take some time to identify each one,” he said.

He said firefighters were still looking for another person who was missing. He said they had managed to control the biggest fire in the plant and gain access inside.

“Firefighters were working to cool the fire to prevent it from spreading to nearby factories,” Kim said.

An AFP reporter saw dozens of fire engines parked outside the factory as rescue workers carried bodies covered in blue blankets out of the building on stretchers.

Photos shared by Yonhap after the fire broke out showed a huge plume of grey smoke rising into the sky above the factory, and orange flames rising inside the building.

The massive factory had an estimated 35,000 battery cells on the second floor for storage, with more batteries stored in other areas.

Lithium batteries burn very hot and quickly, and are difficult to control with traditional fire extinguishing methods.

“It was difficult to enter because of the fear of additional explosions,” Kim said, describing the difficult rescue operation.

“Since it is a lithium battery manufacturer, we decided that sprinkling water would not extinguish the fire, so we used dry sand,” he said.

The lithium battery plant is owned by South Korean primary battery manufacturer Aricel. It is located in Hwaseong City, south of the capital Seoul.

Shares of Arecel’s parent company S-Connect, which owns 96 percent of Arecel, fell more than 20 percent on the Seoul Exchange on Monday.

Lithium batteries are used in everything from laptops to electric vehicles – but they can be highly explosive, so airlines, for example, impose strict rules on inspecting devices containing them.

‘Activate all personnel’

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol issued an emergency directive to authorities, telling them to “mobilise all available personnel and equipment to focus on the search and rescue of people”, his office said.

The President also warned officials that they must “ensure the safety of firefighters given the rapid spread of the fire”.

Officials in Hwaseong sent multiple alerts to residents warning them to stay indoors.

“There is a lot of smoke due to a factory fire. Please pay attention to safety, such as avoiding going outside,” an alert sent by text message said.

Another message read, “There is a fire in the factory. Please move to nearby roads and nearby citizens please keep the windows closed.”

South Korea is a major producer of batteries, including those used in electric vehicles.

Its battery manufacturers supply EV makers around the world, including Tesla.

The fire is one of the worst factory accidents to hit South Korea in several years.

Previously, its worst chemical plant accident occurred in 1989 at the Lucky Chemical Factory in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, resulting in 16 deaths and 17 injuries.

In 2020, a fire at a warehouse in Incheon killed 38 people.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)