How did it happen? The anatomy of Fengjia’s deadly gas explosion

The China Post

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The explosions and ensuing fire that gutted three buildings in Taichung yesterday, leaving one woman dead and more than a dozen injured, were shocking but not a surprise.

Rather, it was the realization of a long-feared confluence of factors that make Taiwanese cities vulnerable to such incidents.

The most fundamental factor behind the fire’s rapid spread — which soon overtook the entire building as well as neighboring structures — is the country’s notorious density.

Taiwan has nearly 639 people per square kilometer, putting it in the world’s top 20. For comparison, the figure for South Korea is 487 while that of the U.S. is 33.

High population density means high living density, and that means jamming as many buildings — both residential and business — into as little space as possible. The resulting limited or complete lack of space between buildings can enable a blaze to spread continually across whole blocks.

Similarly, this high density along with poor or nonexistent city planning has resulted in the jumble of narrow alleyways that make up much of urban Taiwan, particularly downtowns and old areas. Not only does this make it easier for fire to jump roads, but it prevents fire engines from getting into the optimal position to put out a blaze.

A related problem is the prevalence of rooftop apartments constructed after the building itself. These structures, called dinglou jiagai (頂樓加蓋), are built illegally and with no regard for building safety codes. As such, they rarely if ever have fire escape access.

Finally, the cause of the blaze can’t be overlooked. It started with the explosions, which investigators believe occurred when a spark from an electrical appliance ignited gas leaking from a gas cylinder.

Many homes and businesses are now directly connected with the central gas line, but the use of such gas tanks is still common throughout Taiwan, even in its most developed cities.

Of course, city gas pipes pose their own dangers — a leak in one caused an explosion that killed 32 people in 2014. However, gas cylinders require constant handling, be it to turn them on or off, to switch empty ones out for full ones or to transport them (they’re nearly universally used by stall vendors who need a flame for cooking).

The more they’re handled and the older they are, the more likely they are to get a leak.

A leak could be a cut in the plastic tube that takes gas from the cylinder to the cooking apparatus, or it could simply be the result of the pipe not forming a proper seal with the tank’s valve. And there’s always the chance that the gas will be turned on when not being used, filling the area and just waiting to be ignited by a single spark, say, from a cigarette.

The Taichung incident ticked every one of these boxes, from how it started to how it spread and how it spread so quickly.

Tinderbox conditions exist elsewhere in Taiwan, waiting for a spark to make them lethal.