The Korea Herald


Deadly fire ravages battery plant

22 confirmed dead, 8 injured, one missing in fire at Hwaseong factory

By Choi Jeong-yoon, Yoon Min-sik

Published : June 24, 2024 - 18:52

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Fire erupts at a battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province on Monday. (Gyeonggi Fire and Disaster Headquarters) Fire erupts at a battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province on Monday. (Gyeonggi Fire and Disaster Headquarters)

A fire that broke out at a lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, has left at least 22 workers dead, eight injured and one missing as of 6:30 p.m., according to local authorities Monday. Most of the deceased were among the 21 workers who were trapped inside and unaccounted for during the initial fire rescue efforts.

The Gyeonggi Fire and Disaster Headquarters confirmed the deaths of 22 people, including 19 foreign workers, following a fire that occurred at 10:31 a.m. at Aricell’s lithium battery manufacturing plant in the southern Gyeonggi Province city. There were reportedly 102 people working at the plant at the time of the incident.

Of the 22 dead, including those who were missing, 19 were foreigners, including 17 Chinese nationals, one Laotian, and one unidentified.

One deceased worker suffered cardiac arrest and died despite receiving medical treatment, while others were found inside during the fire rescue operation. As the bodies found in the fire were severely damaged, identifying the deceased would take time following DNA tests, authorities added.

At least eight workers sustained serious injuries and have been taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Although the cause of the fire that engulfed the three-story building was being investigated, one of the workers who escaped from the fire told authorities that one of the batteries had exploded, according to Kim Jin-young, the head of the disaster prevention department at the Hwaseong Police Station.

The Aricell factory that caught fire is a three-story building with a reinforced concrete structure and a gross floor area of more than 2,300 square meters. Its main business centers on the manufacture and sale of lithium primary batteries.

Lithium is used in electric vehicles, mobile phones, laptops and eco-friendly energy storage systems.

There were at least 35,000 units of batteries inside the factory, some of which had the potential to explode. The authorities said firefighters in the initial stage had difficulty because the blaze on lithium batteries could not be extinguished with water. The search began at 3 p.m. right after the main fire was under control.

The fire at the battery plant was delayed due to the explosive nature of the metal fires. They are difficult to extinguish as batteries are constantly generating heat inside, which can lead to reignition even after the fire appears to be out, according to experts.

Lithium also reacts violently with water, producing hydrogen gas, which bubbles out of the solution and could lead to massive explosions, they said.

“Primary batteries are manufactured in a fully charged state because they cannot be recharged, so they are full of energy, so the risk of fire or explosion is greater than secondary batteries,” said Na Yong-woon, a researcher at the National Fire Research Institute.

“It is true that metal powders such as lithium react explosively when they come into contact with water, but the batteries contain only a very small amount of lithium, so they do not react even when water is sprinkled on them.”

President Yoon Seok Yul ordered “all available manpower and equipment to be mobilized to search and rescue people.”

Kim Soo-kyung, a spokesperson for the presidential office, said in a written briefing that Yoon gave the order to Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min and Fire and Rescue Chief Nam Hwa-young.

Yoon also asked them to “ensure the safety of firefighters in light of the rapidly expanding fires,” Kim said.

Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-in established a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, a task force that coordinates matters related to large-scale disasters. He stressed cooperation between the related agencies and the regional governments to ensure no additional lives are lost in the fire while requesting an all-out effort on firefighting and rescue efforts.

A level 2 emergency response was issued by the Gyeonggi Fire and Disaster Headquarters. A level 1 response is issued in situations thought to be manageable by a fire station that has jurisdiction in the area of a disaster, while level two is issued for situations that require response by multiple fire stations from the area.

Authorities explained that reignited flames and toxic gas emitted from the blazing batteries made it difficult to quell the fire and rescue the workers trapped inside the building.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also instructed the foreign minister to establish cooperation channels with foreign embassies, as foreign workers were reportedly among the casualties of the Monday fire.