Thai police officer walks at the scene of an explosion at a firework factory in Suphan Buri province, Thailand, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Image Credit: AP

Mueang Suphan Buri: Rescue workers carried out the grim task Thursday of recovering the remains of the 23 apparent victims of a fireworks factory explosion in central Thailand.

Only part of the building frame stood at the site of the devastated factory in an otherwise-empty rice field in rural Suphan Buri province the day after the blast.

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The damage to the site and the condition of the bodies made the number of victims difficult to determine.

Families and friends of the victims gathered at a temple where remains were being stored, to report missing loved ones and provide DNA samples to help identify the remains, but uniformed local officials sought to keep reporters from speaking with them. Several of the bereaved openly wept.

The province’s deputy governor, Don Samitakestarin, said the death toll was 23 and not expected to rise. National police chief Torsak Sukvimol, who traveled to Suphan Buri to oversee police operations, said 22 bodies had been found and one more person was considered missing but presumed dead.

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The cause of the blast has not been determined.

“There are no survivors from the site at all, so there are no eyewitnesses to tell us what happened," Torsak said. “We can only use forensic science to discover the cause.”

Don said it will take time to investigate the cause as there were no survivors to tell what happened. He said the area was sealed off as officers were not done clearing hazardous materials.

The factory marketed small fireworks to scare away birds, a common practice for Thai farmers to protect their crops. Its products looked like what are sometimes called cherry bombs, but it did not appear that the factory manufactured fireworks for entertainment, which would be in high demand to celebrate the Lunar New Year next month.

Don said the factory had met the requirements for operating legally. It experienced an earlier explosion in November 2022 that killed one person and seriously injured three others, but Don said there was no regulation that could prevent it from obtaining a new permit.

"This business operation complied with all the regulations from the Interior Ministry, so we had to give it a license,” he said.

The remains of the victims were taken to Wat Rong Chang, a Buddhist temple in the province capital, Mueang Suphan Buri, where they were being kept in a refrigerator truck pending confirmation of their identities.

The government will pay maximum compensation of 300,000 baht ($8,400) per affected household, Don said

The 16 women and seven men presumed to have died in the blast included the workers and the wife and son of the factory's owner, Don said.

An explosion at a fireworks warehouse in southern Thailand last July killed 10 people and wounded more than 100 while damaging about 100 houses in a 500-meter (1,640-foot) radius of the warehouse. The region's governor said sparks from metal welding work likely ignited the fireworks in the warehouse and caused the explosion.

Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin, who also came to Suphan Buri, said Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who is in Switzerland attending the World Economic Forum, would be briefed at next week's Cabinet meeting on ways to improve weak interagency cooperation.