RAYONG: At least three people were killed and about 50 people injured when an explosion and fire broke out at a petrochemical factory on Map Ta Phut industrial estate.
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Thousands of people were evacuated from nearby factories and communities in a three kilometre radius of the estate to prevent them from inhaling toxic gases.
The explosion occurred at a unit of Bangkok Synthetics Co (BST) at about 3.45pm, followed by a fire that sent thick black smoke into the sky.
The search for victims continued Saturday night, health authorities said.
Most of the dead and injured were workers and mechanics at the factory.
They suffered from inhaling toxic gases, burns and wounds from the blast.
Rayong Governor Senee Jittakasem declared the industrial estate and surrounding area, covering 30 communities, a disaster zone to facilitate the emergency operation.
The governor also instructed people in 10 communities near the estate to evacuate, although the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT) confirmed that air-monitoring stations in the area detected no irregularities in air quality.
Firefighters used foam to douse the blaze. It took more than four hours to get the fire under control.
Mr Senee said an initial investigation found that the blast occurred when workers were putting toluene, a type of chemical widely used as an industrial feedstock and as a solvent, into a tank.
The blast ignited a fire that ravaged part of the factory but did not spread to nearby factories. However, some buildings at adjacent plants were damaged by the blast, said IEAT governor Verapong Chaiperm.
Mr Verapong said he had ordered factories near the BST plant to suspend operations and evacuate their staff.
Deputy Public Health Minister Surawit Khonsomboon said toluene could cause serious health effects if a person inhaled a large amount of it. Exposure to even a small amount would cause minor ailments such as breathing difficulty, dizziness and vomiting.
Sumetha Wichienpet, chief of hazardous response and remedial action at the Pollution Control Department, said toluene was not carcinogenic and its health impact would be short term.
Dr Naris Onprom, director of Rayong Hospital, confirmed that a 30-year-old male worker had died at the hospital.
The victim was identified as Chaiya Aksornsri. He suffered severe head injuries and burns to 50% of his body.
An official at Map Ta Phut Hospital said two people died at the hospital, but their identities were not revealed.
Industry Minister Pongsvas Svasti said the BST plant had suspended production for maintenance. He believed an error during the work caused the accident.
MR Pongsvas, who will inspect the site today, said he had briefed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra about the accident. She had instructed agencies to take care of the injured and speed up compensation for all those affected.
According to BST's website, the company was established in 1991. The company's products include Butadiene, Butene-1,MTBE and C4 Raffinates, which are major raw materials of downstream petrochemical processes such as the manufacturing of synthetic rubbers and plastic resins.
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