Explosions rip through Dutch fireworks warehouse, at least 20 dead

ENSCHEDE, Netherlands - A blaze inside a fireworks warehouse on Saturday triggered multiple explosions that killed at least 20 people, wounded 230 and sent balls of fire shooting over the center of this eastern Dutch town, media reported.

A sea of black smoke plunged an entire neighborhood into darkness as the fire raged for hours after the afternoon explosions.

Helicopters and ambulances ferried away the injured. A 625-square-yard area around the facility was destroyed, and streets in the town of Enschede, 85 miles east of Amsterdam, were littered with fragments of concrete and shards of window pane.

''This is truly a calamity,'' the town's mayor, J. Mans, told RTL-5 television. He said 100 tons of fireworks exploded in the blaze.

''Our information is that 20 people are dead, but I fear that there will be more,'' he told the NOS public television channel. ''I'm afraid that there are more people buried under the rubble,'' he said.

Nearly 2,000 people live near the warehouse, according to the mayor.

Amateur video footage on RTL-4 television showed a huge ball of fire rising over the roofs of row homes in a densely populated area. Sparks shot skyward as more explosions followed.

''A whole neighborhood was blown away,'' said Freek Tonis, who lives down the street from the destroyed blocks. ''It was like a war zone after the first explosion.''

Tonis also said he thought the death toll would go higher because people initially streamed toward the warehouse, thinking the exploding fireworks were part of a display.

''There were hordes of people,'' he said. ''The police needed to nearly pull their guns to keep the people back.''

The neighborhood around the warehouse, called Enschede North, resembled the aftermath of a heavy bombing raid. There were no signs of life on the gray, ash-blanketed streets. Homes were reduced to blackened rubble and surrounded by burnt-out hulks of cars and mangled bicycles.

One of Grolsch Beer's two main breweries caught fire and was extinguished after a few hours.

Interior Minister Klaas de Vries arrived on the scene and said that emergency services were being coordinated by the National Crisis Center in The Hague.

''Everyone in the Netherlands feels compassion for the people of Enschede,'' he said.

As night fell, emergency crews erected floodlights in the stricken neighborhood and continued to sift through the rubble in search of more victims. Rescue teams from across the border in Germany assisted in the search.

Hundreds of residents were spending the night in local sport halls, which had been converted into emergency shelters.

A statement issued by the town said ambulance and fire fighters from nearby Dutch cities, as well as Rheine across the border in Germany, were helping move the wounded to hospitals. A local Dutch air force base was reportedly being used to treat the injured.

Police sealed off the damaged area and hundreds of extra agents were patrolling the streets to restrain looters, who reportedly had been going through broken windows and helping themselves to goods.

The warehouse is several blocks north of the train station, television reports said. The Dutch national railway said train service to the city had been suspended.

Television reports described the firm that operated the warehouse as a major importer of fireworks from China and supplier to pop concerts and other major events in the Netherlands.

The mayor said the warehouse was licensed for fireworks storage, but could not explain why it was situated close to a residential area.

No further details were given on the cause of the blast, which followed a spell of unseasonably warm and exceptionally dry weather. Temperatures here have been in the 80s.


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