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27 Jun 2024

"Unconscious after two breaths": Lithium battery explosions in South Korea killed 22 through smoke inhalation


A catastrophic fire at the Aricell plant in Hwaseong city, South Korea, has resulted in the deaths of at least 22 people after several lithium batteries exploded. The incident occurred on Monday morning at the factory, located approximately 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Seoul.

Officials stated that the victims likely succumbed to extremely toxic gas within seconds of the fire getting out of control. The cause of the explosions remains unclear, and the fire was largely extinguished in about six hours, Indian Express reports. 

Firefighter Kim Jin-Young told the media that over 100 people were working in the factory when a series of explosions were heard from the second floor, where lithium-ion batteries are inspected and packaged, the Daily Mirror reports. 

About 145 firefighters and 50 pieces of firefighting equipment were deployed to the scene. The fire caused by the explosions was extinguished about six hours after the initial explosion, at 3:10 p.m. KST, according to Wikipedia. 


Died from toxic smoke, not heat or burns

Fire official Cho Sun-Ho reported that most of the workers were temporary hires who likely were not familiar with the building's structure. He stated that the workers succumbed to smoke inhalation rather than burn injuries, as the fire started on the second floor of the warehouse. 


"Unconscious after two breaths"

According to Cho, the workers likely became unconscious within 15 seconds of the fire spreading to their location, after taking one to two breaths of the highly toxic smoke generated by the burning batteries. The intensity of the fire made it difficult to immediately identify the deceased.

Television footage showed dense smoke clouds and small explosions as firefighters battled the blaze. Part of the factory's roof had collapsed during the fire. South Korea, a major producer of lithium batteries used in electric vehicles and laptops, faced a significant industrial disaster with this incident, according to the BBC. 


Victims located using mobile phone signals

Missing people were located using their mobile phone signals, which geolocated them to the second floor of the factory. Officials noted that the deceased workers were likely unable to escape using the stairs to the ground floor. Twenty-two bodies were retrieved from the factory, while one victim subsequently died in the hospital.

The fire  was extinguished around 3:10 p.m, and firefighters were able to enter the factory, said Hwaseong Fire Department official Kim Jin-Young in a briefing, as reported by CNN. 

He confirmed that among the deceased were 18 Chinese nationals, one Laotian, and two South Korean workers. One body remains unidentified, and at least one person is feared missing. "Most of the bodies are badly burned so it will take some time to identify each one," Mr. Kim stated, according to AFP.

Out of the more than 100 workers present when the fire broke out, eight were injured, with two in serious condition. 


Initial entry slowed down by fear of further explosions - 35000 lithium batteries in the factory 

The Aricell factory housed approximately 35,000 battery cells on its second floor, where batteries were inspected and packaged, with additional cells stored in other areas.

The fire reportedly began when a series of battery cells exploded, although the exact cause of the initial explosions is still under investigation. Entry to the site was initially hampered due to fears of further explosions.


Rapid fire spread gave little time to escape

Professor Kim Jae-Ho, a fire and disaster prevention expert at Daejeon University, noted the rapid spread of the fire, giving workers little time to escape.

"Battery materials such as nickel are easily flammable," he told Reuters. "So often, there is not enough time to respond, compared to a fire caused by other materials."


Firefighters used sand to extinguish the batteries

Firefighters used dry sand to extinguish the fire, as water can intensify lithium fires. The fire took several hours to control, and there remains a risk of re-ignition due to ongoing chemical reactions.

Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the fire and the circumstances surrounding this event.