Twenty-two people die in fire at South Korean lithium battery factory

Blaze began after series of battery cells exploded inside warehouse

Firefighters at the site of a fatal fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell in Hwaseong. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

A lithium battery factory in South Korea was set on fire after multiple batteries exploded on Monday, killing 22 workers, most of them Chinese nationals, fire officials said.

The fire and a series of explosions ripped through the factory run by primary battery manufacturer Aricell in Hwaseong, an industrial cluster southwest of the capital, Seoul.

The victims likely succumbed to extremely toxic gas within seconds of the fire getting out of control, the officials said. It was unclear what caused the explosions. The fire was largely extinguished after
about six hours.

Eighteen Chinese workers, two South Koreans and one Laotian were among the dead. The nationality of the other deceased worker was yet to be confirmed, Kim Jin-young, an official at the Hwaseong fire service, told reporters, citing information from company officials.

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The blaze was first reported at 10:31am local time after a series of battery cells exploded inside a warehouse of 35,000 batteries, Mr Kim said.

Firefighters battle the blaze at the lithium battery-producing facility in Hwaseong, South Korea. Photograph: Yonhap/AP

A Reuters journalist saw firefighters moving up to six bodies out of the factory. Due to the intensity of the blaze, rescuers were finding it difficult to identify the dead, Mr Kim said.

Two people were being treated for major burns, officials at the scene said.

Live television footage showed firefighters spraying the damaged steel and concrete building. Parts of the upper level had collapsed, and large chunks of the building looked as if they had been blown out into the street by explosions.

Aerial footage showed massive white smoke clouds billowing from the structure and explosions rolling through the building.

Gyeonggi province fire official Cho Sun-ho said most of the foreign workers killed had been hired temporarily and were likely to have been unfamiliar with the structure of the building. Smoke and fire had spread within 15 seconds of an explosion, he said, and the victims likely succumbed after taking one or two breaths.

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Kim Jae-ho, fire and disaster prevention professor at Daejeon University, said the fire had probably spread too quickly for workers to escape.

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

South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol visited the scene of the incident later on Monday. Interior minister Lee Sang-min called on local authorities to take steps to prevent any hazardous chemicals from contaminating the surrounding area.

Established in 2020, South Korea-based Aricell makes lithium primary batteries for sensors and radio communication devices. It has 48 employees, according to its latest regulatory filing and its Linkedin profile.

Calls to Aricell offices were unanswered.

The company is not listed on South Korea’s stock market but is majority owned by S-Connect, according to Aricell’s regulatory filing. S-Connect is registered on the junior Kosdaq index and its shares closed down 22.5 per cent.

Battery production involves the use of highly toxic materials.

“The fact that there were so many casualties when this was on only the second floor is because of the toxic materials and not so much because of burns,” said Park Chul-wan at Seojeong University.

South Korea is home to major producers of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs) and to one of the world’s biggest automakers, Hyundai Motor, and its affiliate, Kia, which are making a push to shift away from internal combustion cars to EVs.

Two years ago, South Korea brought in legislation to bring prosecutions against company executives in the event of fatal incidents, with the possibility of jail terms, after the country saw dozens of workers killed in industrial incidents each year. – Reuters

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