10,000 Evacuated in China After Gas Leak

Some 10,000 people have been evacuated from their homes after a leak was discovered at a gas well in a southwest Chinese town where 243 people were killed by an earlier leak, state media and an official said Sunday.

On Saturday, workers ignited gas at the mouth of the well near the city of Chongqing in Kaixian County to avoid a possible buildup and explosion, said a county official who only gave his surname, Xia. No injuries were reported.

"There's no danger now," Xia said in a telephone interview Sunday.

About 7,000 people who live within about half a mile of the well were evacuated, state television said. It showed footage of residents packed into trucks and workers in hard hats near the well. A huge flame burned at the mouth of the well.

The Beijing Evening News newspaper put the number of people evacuated closer to 10,000, describing it as a "mass emergency evacuation."

Xia said workers were hoping to shut down the well on Sunday and allow residents to return home in the area about 700 miles southwest of Beijing.

The leak was discovered during the final tests which were being conducted to bring the just-finished well into production, Xinhua said.

Residents have also been warned against drinking from a section of a nearby river, which started "rolling and foaming" Saturday morning, an official from Kaixian County said.

The official, who gave only his surname as Tan, said the water appeared to contain methane, possibly one of the gases in the well. The water was being monitored, Tan said. A 650-foot area around the river had been cordoned off, he said.

The incident occurred in the same mountain town of Gaoqiao in Kaixian County where 243 people were killed in a gas leak in December 2003 when a deadly cloud of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide spread over a 10 square mile area — one of the country's worst industrial accidents.

Many residents died in their sleep or collapsed while trying to flee, leaving the area strewn with bodies. About 9,000 people were hurt and more than 41,000 villagers were forced from their homes. Many survivors suffered lung damage and burns on their eyes and skin.

Six employees of the Chuandong (East Sichuan) Drilling Co. were sentenced to prison in 2004 for negligence. The same company operates the 11,000-foot deep well that has begun leaking, the official Xinhua News Agency said.