150 Said Dead in North Korea Train Explosion

DANDONG, China (AP) -- The fearsome picture of devastation from the North Korean train explosions near the Chinese border took shape Friday with initial reports saying 150 were killed, 1,249 injured and 1,850 apartments or houses destroyed.

North Korea's government said the explosion occurred when train cars carrying dynamite touched power lines, according to Anne O'Mahony, regional director of the Irish aid agency Concern.

``It says 150 people died, including some school children,'' O'Mahony told Irish radio station RTE by telephone from Pyongyang, the North's capital.

Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow in Beijing said the blast had killed at least 54 people and injured 1,249, but that he expected the toll to rise, citing the massive damage.

The explosion damaged an additional 6,350 apartments or houses, Sparrow said, citing information from Red Cross officials in the North.

``When you look at the number of buildings destroyed, you have to be afraid of what you're going to find,'' Sparrow said. ``We are anticipating that the casualty figures will increase,'' Sparrow said, citing figures from Red Cross officials in the North.

Concern official Chris Wardle in Pyonygang confirmed the government had told aid workers the death toll was 150.

``We're basically working from information provided earlier today from the government. Various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will be traveling up there and making assessment tomorrow (Saturday). ... Until that happens, we won't know what really happened there.''

``We have been told that the accident was caused by live electrical wire getting in contact with dynamite. The numbers we've been told are 150 dead, 1000-plus injured, and some dead are thought to be schoolchildren, there's a school nearby. And (there is) a figure of 800-plus dwellings destroyed by the blast,'' Wardle said.

Initial reports by South Korean media said 3,000 people were killed or hurt in the disaster at a railway station in Ryongchon, a bustling town about 90 miles north of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The secretive North's communist government was silent Friday about the disaster, despite confirmation from the South Korean and Chinese governments.

Reports also varied over what exactly exploded.

``What they've said is that two carriages of a train carrying dynamite - they were trying to disconnect the carriages and link them up to another train,'' she said. ``They got caught in the overhead electric wiring, the dynamite exploded, and that was the cause of the explosion.''

Sparrow said the trains were carrying explosives similar to those used in mining. China's Xinhua News Agency reported the blast was blamed on ammonium nitrate - a chemical used in fertilizers - leaking from one train. South Korea's unification minister said the trains were carrying fuel.

The blast leveled the train station, a school and apartments within a 500-yard radius, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, quoting Chinese witnesses. It said there were about 500 passengers and railway officials in the station at the time of the blast.

North Korean officials invited foreign officials to visit the site of the disaster Saturday, O'Mahony said.

Ryongchon is the site of chemical and metalworking plants, and has a reported population of 130,000.

Those injured ``will be suffering greatly from ... burns and those types of injuries that leave you traumatized,'' Sparrow said. He said Red Cross workers in the North were distributing tents and blankets to 4,000 families, while the international group was putting together hospital kits containing antibiotics, bandages and anesthetics.

Hospitals in China near the border were put on ``high alert,'' Sparrow said.

There was no sign in Dandong, the Chinese border city nearest to the crash site, of injured people being brought out of North Korea. But the city's three biggest hospitals were preparing for a possible surge of patients. The city is about 12 miles from Ryongchon.

``We're ready to offer our close neighbor our best medical help anytime,'' said an official at Dandong Chinese Hospital.

In Seoul, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said China was urging North Korea to send the injured across the border to hospitals in China. But he said Pyongyang was instead asking China to dispatch relief workers to the scene.

China confirmed the first fatalities Friday afternoon, saying two Chinese were killed and 12 others injured in the disaster. The report by its state-run Xinhua News Agency cited the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang.

Jeong cited only a ``large number'' of dead and injured.

The European Union said Friday its humanitarian aid representatives would travel to the scene over the weekend to assess how it could help victims of the accident.

European Commission spokesman Jean-Charles Ellerman-Kingombe said EU officials had been invited by the North Korean authorities to go on location on Saturday, two days after the explosion.

North Korea declared an emergency in the area while cutting off international telephone connections to prevent crash details from leaking out, Yonhap reported.

The chief of the South Korean Red Cross is in North Korea on an unrelated business trip and is to evaluate what kind of aid North Korea might need, Jeong said.

The North's official KCNA news agency said in a brief dispatch that the Red Cross official was greeted Friday by North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam. But KCNA still had not mentioned the disaster by Friday.

The international Red Cross plans to launch an international appeal for aid, Sparrow said.

The blast reportedly occurred nine hours after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il passed through the station on his way home from a three-day visit to China. But Jeong said that given the circumstances and the timing of the blast, ``I don't think sabotage was involved.''

At the time of the blast, an international passenger train carrying many ethnic Chinese was parked in the station, South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported, without citing sources.

The British Broadcasting Corp. showed on its Web site what it said was a satellite photo taken 18 hours after the reported explosion. The black-and-white photo showed huge clouds of black smoke billowing from the site.

South Korea's acting president, Goh Kun, ordered his government to prepare assistance if necessary, and the country's Red Cross said it was ready to send food and clothes.

Referring to reports of widespread devastation, Goh said at a meeting of his senior staff, ``If the report is true, this is a very tragic accident and we relay deep condolences.''