A cooling tower, which was under construction, collapses

One person died and 39 others were injured, with most sustaining serious burns, when a major blast led to the collapse of an under-construction cooling tower — part of the ongoing diesel hydro de-sulphurisation expansion project — at the state-owned HPCL’s Visakh Refinery on Friday.

The blast, the reason for which is not yet known, caused a raging fire, which was brought under control by 12 fire tenders.

The injured were rushed to Navy’s INHS Kalyani, which was located nearby, and other private hospitals here. Most of the critically injured were shifted by the Navy paramedics to the private hospitals — six were admitted to Seven Hills Hospitals, six to Manipal Hospitals and one to Apollo Hospital — the official spokesman said. The victims being treated at Seven Hills are reported to have sustained over 75 per cent burns.

After the explosion, eyewitnesses said, thick layer of smoke engulfed the area as survivors ran helter-skelter. Around 50 workers of Bridge & Roof and Gopal Engineering were present in the area at the time. “A pungent smell emanated from the accident spot causing suffocation and eye irritation when I was working on top of the tower. I had to flee along with others to save my life,” A. Venkataramana said.

Collector Praveen Kumar, who rushed to the blast site, said some more were feared trapped under the debris. He told The Hindu that experts from the National Disaster Response Team had been requisitioned from Guntur. The rescue operation, he informed, was hampered due to heat triggered by the blast.

A HPCL spokesman said that all the units in the refinery were working, except one which was shut down due to the heat. The fire, he said, did not spread to other units. The accident spot is located near a hillock and an Andhra Petrochemicals unit. As part of its tie-up, fire engines from neighbouring industries were rushed to the spot.

The casualties would have been more had the fire spread to the fuel oil and the aviation oil processing units, a senior HPCL executive who retired recently, said.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests recently declined permission to HPCL to expand its capacity from 8.33 million tonne to 15 million tonne with an investment of Rs.10,000 crore on the ground that moratorium on Greenfield and Brownfield projects was in force following identification of Visakhapatnam as a critically polluted area.