Aqaba, Jordan: Jordan’s public prosecutor on Tuesday launched an investigation into a chlorine gas leak that killed 13 people and injured more than 300 in the coastal city of Aqaba.
At least four Asian migrants where among those killed on Monday when a tank of the toxic gas fell on the dockside in the Red Sea port, officials said.
A judicial source told AFP that the country’s public prosecutor and team of forensic experts had moved “to examine and collect samples and evidence at the scene of the accident and initiate investigation procedures”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed its sincere condolences and sympathy to the Jordanian government and people and to the families of the victims of this tragedy, as well as its wishes for a speedy recovery for all the injured.
As King Abdullah II chaired an emergency meeting of the government’s crisis cell, the country’s health minister said 332 people had been admitted to hospital after the incident, though most had since been discharged.
Most were being treated for the effects of breathing chlorine gas, a common cleaning agent that also has a range of other industrial uses and can be employed as a chemical weapons agent.
“All of the injured are suffering from similar symptoms, shortness of breath, a heavy cough and vertigo,” said Dr Rouba Aaamawi of the Islamic Hospital in Aqaba which was treating 70 people, some on respirators.
Assadallah Al Jazi, a 25-year-old fertiliser company employee, was among those hurt.
“We didn’t hear any explosion. We just smelt something noxious and saw the yellow smoke, then there were people choking,” he said.
The port began returning to normal Tuesday, with all but one dock due to reopen as further safety checks were to be carried out, said Interior Minister General Mazen Al Faraya.
“The situation in Aqaba is now under control,” Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh said.
Grain silo checks
The chlorine escaped when the cable snapped on a crane loading a tank of liquefied gas onto a ship, sending it crashing to the ground on the dockside.
The force of the fall punctured the pressurised container, enveloping the freighter Forest 6 in a shroud of the bright yellow gas, closed circuit TV images showed.
The fallen white tank, punctured and stained yellow from where the gas burst out, came to rest on the dock directly beside the vessel.
Ship-tracking websites say the deck cargo ship was built only this year and sails under a Hong Kong flag.
On Tuesday, civil defence forces were seen inspecting the scene of the spill, some dressed in hazmat suits.
The director of the port’s grain silos, Imad Tarawneh, said they would remain closed for two days while health inspectors checked them for contamination.
He said there would be no impact on port traffic as there were currently no grain carriers in dock.
“The silos are built of concrete and are hermetically sealed but, despite that, all necessary precautions are being taken and all loading and unloading operations have been halted,” he said.
The head of the Aqaba Company for Ports Operation and Management, Khaled Maayta, said the grain silos were just 600 metres (yards) from the site of Monday’s spill.
Aqaba health director Jamal Obeidat said hospitals around the city were full and unable to receive more patients.
Civil defence spokesman Amer Al Sartawy said more than 2,700 security and emergency personnel were deployed to the scene, and about 45 of them ended up among the injured.
Aqaba’s nearby south beach, which is popular with tourists, was evacuated after the accident, as were adjacent residential areas but occupants were later told they could return home.
Aqaba tourist department official Nidal Al Majali said the lack of wind helped to prevent the gas cloud spreading outside the port.
Aqaba is Jordan’s only maritime gateway and a transit point for the lion’s share of its imports and exports.
It occupies a narrow stretch of Red Sea coastline between the Israeli and Saudi borders and lies just 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the Israeli port and seaside resort of Eilat.
Israel’s Environmental Protection Agency said there was no risk to health in Eilat as the prevailing winds were in the other direction.
Chlorine has a range of industrial uses and is infamous for its use as a chemical weapons agent in World War I. It attacks the respiratory system, skin and eyes.