BEIJING: A truckload of fireworks intended for Lunar New Year celebrations went off Friday in a massive, deadly explosion that destroyed part of an elevated highway in central China, sending vehicles plummeting 30 metres to the ground.
State TV broadcaster CCTV said eight people were confirmed dead and 11 injured, after seven vehicles were recovered from the wreckage. The death toll appeared likely to rise: The official Xinhua News Agency said the collapse smashed and buried at least 25 vehicles.
Earlier reports by China National Radio and some other outlets of 26 people killed were later removed from websites, without explanation.
An 80-metre stretch of a major east-west highway collapsed in Mianchi county in Henan province. It scattered blackened chunks of debris and shattered the windows of a nearby truck stop.
A truck driver interviewed on CCTV said he was only 20 meters away from the explosion.
''I heard a huge bang and immediately braked. I saw small fireballs falling down one by one,'' said the unidentified truck driver, whose truck windshield was smashed from the impact of the blast. ''I then heard the sounds of clanking and exploding for five to six minutes,'' the driver said. ''My face was covered in dust.''
Photos posted online by Xinhua showed a stretch of elevated highway gone, with one truck's back wheels perched at the edge of a shorn-off section of the highway. Other photos showed firefighters below spraying water on scorched hunks of concrete, wrecked trucks and flattened shipping containers.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the explosion. It occurred about 90 kilometers west of Luoyang, an ancient capital of China known for grottoes of Buddhist statues carved from limestone cliffs.
Fireworks are an enormously popular part of Chinese Lunar New Year festivities. To meet the demand, fireworks are made, shipped and stored in large quantities, sometimes in unsafe conditions.
A result is periodic catastrophe: In 2006, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, a storeroom of fireworks exploded at a temple fair in Henan, killing 36 people and injuring dozens more. In 2000, an unlicensed fireworks factory in southern China exploded, killing 33 people, including 13 primary and secondary school students working there.