(4th LD) Death toll in battery plant fire rises to 22: firefighters

At least 22 people, including 20 foreign nationals, were confirmed dead in a lithium battery plant fire in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, firefighters said, in what could be the worst accident to occur at a chemical factory. The death toll could rise further as one went missing while being out of contact, according to the authorities. As of 6:30 p.m., 22 workers had been killed, with two seriously injured and six others suffering mild injuries. Among those confirmed killed, 20 are foreigners -- 18 Chinese nationals, one Laotian and another whose nationality is not known, they said. The blaze started at lithium battery maker Aricell's plant in Hwaseong, 45 kilometers south of Seoul, at around 10:30 a.m., authorities said. Firefighters went inside the building to search for the missing person after the main fire was under control at around 3:10 p.m. The deceased were all found on the second floor of the factory's No. 3 unit. Other details of the dead have yet to be verified and DNA tests will be carried out as the blaze severely damaged the bodies. "The foreign ministry plans to closely cooperate with the diplomatic missions of related countries in South Korea to support the victims and their families," a ministry official said. Earlier, TV footage showed small explosions kept going off with showers of sparks in the burning plant. The fire reportedly occurred for unknown reasons at the three-story, reinforced concrete building with a total floor space of about 2,300 square meters. Firefighters reportedly had difficulties completely putting out the blaze because burning lithium batteries are difficult to handle by conventional fire extinguishing methods. One witness, who escaped from the second floor of the plant, told the Hwaseong Fire Station that an explosive combustion occurred in one battery cell at the time of the fire. The station said the fire spread rapidly as the battery cells inside exploded continuously, making it difficult for rescuers to go inside and search. At least 35,000 batteries are believe d to be inside the plant. The government convened an emergency meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters in the afternoon to discuss measures to minimize casualties from the disaster. At the meeting, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min asked all relevant government agencies and local governments to mobilize all available resources and personnel to extinguish the fire and rescue survivors. Earlier, President Yoon Suk Yeol instructed Minister Lee to make all possible efforts to search for and rescue the missing people by mobilizing all available manpower and equipment. Source: Yonhap News Agency