By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Investigators in Taiwan were focusing Monday on the possibility that a cigarette butt or spark caused the blaze that burned 498 people, killing one, at a weekend water park party when colored powder sprayed from the stage caught fire.
More than 400 people remained hospitalized, including 202 in serious condition, city officials said. A 20-year-old woman with burns to 90 percent of her body died after being taken off life support with her family’s consent, said a hospital spokeswoman, who spoke anonymously because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency said her 12-year-old brother also had burns on 90 percent of his body.
Police recommended criminal charges against the organizer of Saturday’s party, as well as two technicians, at the Formosa Fun Coast park in suburban Taipei.
“It’s still not clear what happened, but there were a number of people smoking and the weather was warm,” New Taipei City news department head Lin Chieh-yu said. Temperatures around greater Taipei topped 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 F) before the party.
The three tons of colored starch-based powder bought by the organizers from Tai Won, a seller in the island’s southern county of Yunlin, were flammable, said Chou Hui-fang, a representative of the seller. She said the buyer was informed about the risk of fire.
“Whether it’s corn starch or flour starch, this kind of stuff, no matter how long it’s been around, if it’s in dense quantities and if it’s hot, it can catch fire,” Chou said. She said her 4-year-old company has been questioned by police and health officials but was not considered at fault.
“We didn’t know what the buyers were going to do with it or how much they would use,” she said. “It might have been supplies for a whole year.”
Taiwan Premier Mao Chi-kuo banned use of the powder at future private events. Colored powder is often thrown on revelers during the annual Holi celebrations in India and Nepal, a Hindu festival. The powder at Saturday’s party was made in Taiwan, Chou said.
The water park was ordered to close after the fire.
Taiwan police recommended charges of professional neglect and public endangerment for party organizer Lu Chung-chi, who was arrested but released on bail of 1 million Taiwan dollars (US$32,000) and restricted from leaving the island, a New Taipei City police spokesman said.
Local media photos showed Lu kneeling on the ground to apologize, pledging to take full responsibility.
Police also recommended charges for the stage hardware technician and the person responsible for shooting off the powder. Each was given bail of 300,000 Taiwan dollars. Officers questioned two others involved in the event but did not recommend charges, said Yan Bo-jen, news liaison for the local police precinct.
Taiwan university student Liang Sheng-kai said flaming powder hit his legs, apparently catching fire after it was sprayed from a concert stage into the front row where he was standing.
With the park’s water features several hundred meters (yards) away, too far to douse the fire or ease burns, people screamed and panicked to find exits as balls of fire surged from the ground, he said. He said the right and left sides of the stage were blocked.
“It was very messy and a lot of people fell over or got knocked down,” said Liang, 20, who is being treated for his burns in a Taipei hospital.
Five victims were from Hong Kong, two from mainland China and one each from Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. Authorities were still checking on the nationalities of three other foreigners. More than 200 were students, Central News Agency said.
Hong Kong is reviewing venues and other factors before it gives licenses to two local events similar to the water park party, Secretary Ko Wing-man said.
A total of 498 people were injured by the fire, according to the latest statement from the city government’s health department. It said 202 were badly injured, 236 lightly or moderately injured, and 60 others were unclassified. (end)
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.