Authorities are restricting access to hospitalized victims of a rock-blasting accident that occurred last weekend at a Chinese-backed cement plant located in northern Laos, and several people were arrested following a blast caused by the apparent misuse of stockpiled explosives, local authorities said.
The accident at the plant, owned by Ket Thao Lao co. Ltd, claimed the life of one victim and injured 20 others, when debris from an explosion tore through nearby Phonemany village in Luang Prabang province’s Nam Bak district on Oct. 5, damaging 80 houses.
An official notice from the Luang Prabang commerce and industry department issued Tuesday said that eight people, including one Chinese national were seriously injured.
“The cement plant is operated by a Chinese businessman, so they took the victims to be treated at a Chinese clinic,” a Nam Bak health official told RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday.
“Security and military officers are on duty, restricting access to the patients,” said the official.
Some who were seriously injured have been taken to a hospital in Luang Prabang for treatment, but an official there denied that blast victims were in the hospital.
A workforce committee has been appointed to investigate the cause of the accident.
An official of Nam Bak district told RFA that the committee cannot comment publicly on the investigation before its conclusion.
Local media reported that several arrests were made in connection with the accident.
Khamvone Keolounnoun, Nam Bak’s vice chief, was quoted by the Lao News Agency on Monday as saying, “The authorities have detained a number of suspects involved in the [factory’s] blasting [operations] for investigation.”
The blast hurled debris into the village, located about 500 meters away from the factory, including a large rock that crashed through the roof of a house.
A villager who witnessed the explosion told RFA on Tuesday, “Usually when they blast, the ground shakes like an earthquake,” he said.
“But this time the blast was so much louder, and the shock wave hit us so hard that I felt scared,” he said, adding, “The whole family was shocked and we all went to go hide, [fearing for our] safety.”
“Later the smoke spread through the air and covered the village. I looked outside the house and saw rocks flying through the air.”
RFA reported on Sunday that villagers suspected the company used more explosives than usual because the explosion seemed more powerful.
Vice Chief Khamvone Keolounnoun confirmed Monday that 10 to 20 tons of explosives were used in the blast, which is within appropriate levels.
According to the commerce and industry department’s official notice, Ket Thao Lao and a Chinese-backed blasting subcontractor were at odds over which of the two companies was responsible.
The subcontractor, a company owned by a Chinese national, had been contracted to blast with the factory’s former owner until August of last year. When Ket Thao Lao bought the factory in January 2019, the Chinese man proposed a renewal of their contract but was turned down because the new owners wanted to reduce costs by doing the blasting in-house.
“The new owner found that the Chinese [subcontractor] owned 12 tons of explosive materials in four spots on the mountain, so the new owner told the subcontractor to destroy the explosive materials, in a memorandum of understanding that holds the subcontractor responsible for any damages,” the notice said.
The blast that caused the accident was orchestrated by the subcontractor. They were attempting to detonate the remaining explosives.
The notice from the department identified the detained individuals as the Chinese subcotractor and his family.
Khamtanh Somphanvilay, deputy director of the commerce and industry department, told RFA Wednesday that he witnessed the blasting on Saturday.
“The technician dug and measured the hole to match the quantity of explosives to make sure the blasting does not impact [the community],” said the deputy director.
“When the rock was blasted, the incident occurred unexpectedly. This is [due to] the carelessness and technical fault of the technician in charge of the blasting,” Khamtanh Somphanvilay said.
The cement plant donated 10 million kip (slightly more than $1100) to help the victims of the accident.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.