Aid Workers Enter N. Korea After Train Blast

Emergency aid began arriving Sunday at the site of North Korea's (search) devastating train explosion as the death toll rose to more than 160 — nearly half of them children in a school torn apart by the blast. At least 1,300 people were injured.

The Red Cross said the explosion destroyed the railway station in Ryongchon (search), near the Chinese border, and turned the surrounding area into a landscape of huge craters, twisted rail tracks and scorched buildings. Thousands were homeless.

"They've been taken in by other families. We were fearing people on the streets," John Sparrow, a Red Cross spokesman in Beijing (search), said Sunday. "We breathed a big sigh of relief when we saw that wasn't the case."

North Korea blamed the disaster on human error, saying a train cargo of oil and chemicals ignited when workers knocked the wagons against power lines.

The statement was unusual for normally secretive country, as was its plea earlier in the week for international help. Foreign aid workers were allowed to visit the scene Saturday, but only after all of the dead and injured had been evacuated.

North Korea's official death toll rose from 154 to 161 on Sunday, the Red Cross said. It was unclear whether the higher number was due to the deaths of some of the 1,300 injured, also an official figure.

Sparrow said earlier that 76 of the dead were children in a school that had been destroyed.

North Korean state television announced Sunday that Chinese supplies were headed for Ryongchon, indicating the totalitarian government had notified its population of the catastrophe.

Later Sunday, 11 trucks crossed into North Korea near Dandong, about 12 miles from Ryongchon, carrying $120,000 worth of instant noodles, blankets, canned food and tents.

The trucks were driven by Chinese People's Armed Police officers and bore red-and-white banners saying "donations from the government of the People's Republic of China."

South Korea's Red Cross was also trying to arrange a shipment of food, water, blankets and clothing.

Lee Yoon-gu, president of South Korea's Red Cross who returned home Saturday after a five-day visit to Pyongyang, said about 2,000 houses at Ryongchon are believed to have been completely flattened or damaged.

Chinese villagers 12 miles away said they were shaken by the force of the blast and saw a black, mushroom-shaped cloud tower over the horizon.

Sparrow said the explosion had "obliterated" the railroad station and the immediate surroundings.

"There was just rubble everywhere and very large craters in the ground. The buildings around were totally flattened, especially the houses," Red Cross official Jay Matta said by telephone on Saturday. "It's just a mess everywhere."

U.N. officials estimated 40 percent of the town was damaged. At a three-story elementary school about 300 yards from the station, the roof was ripped away and the top floor collapsed, he said.

Aid workers said they saw people pulling furniture and other belongings from wrecked homes.

"We could see people on oxcarts carrying their belongings ... to relocate within the town to the homes of friends and neighbors," said Dr. Eigil Sorensen, the World Health Organization representative in Pyongyang.

On Saturday, North Korea's state news agency said the explosion was touched off by "electrical contact caused by carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer." Ammonium nitrate can be extremely volatile.

The foreign aid workers saw no signs of any dead or wounded North Koreans, Matta said. "It looks like they did a thorough search before we came," he said.

"The impression from what we saw was that the initial rescue operation was completed," Sorensen said.

North Korean officials said about 350 injured people were hospitalized in Sinuiju, a bigger city on the Chinese border, according to Sorensen.

Aid workers didn't go there Saturday because Sinuiju is a special economic zone and North Korean officials hadn't prepared the required entry permits but were promised access in the next two to three days, Sorensen said. North Korea restricts the movement of foreigners.