Toxic fumes from a natural gas well explosion killed at least 191 people in southwestern China in late December, state media reported. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals suffering from poisoning and chemical burns after the blast. More than 40 000 people living within three miles of the gas field were evacuated, amid fears that the death toll would rise.

Some 9,185 people were treated for gas poisoning and other injuries, and 431 were still hospitalized — 17 in critical condition, the official Xinhua News Agency said at press time. Newspaper photos showed children with red faces and their eyes inflamed from chemical burns.

The official English-language China Daily described a ten-square-mile region around the explosion site as a death zone.

Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered local authorities to do everything possible to speed up the search-and-rescue operation and prevent poisonous sulphurated hydrogen gas from spreading.

Operations were going normally before the gas suddenly exploded from the side of the drill, an official told Xinhua. The blast sent a high concentration of natural gas and sulphurated hydrogen shooting 100 feet out of a burst well.

The cause of the blast is under investigation. Drillers apparently hit a pressurized deposit of gas and hydrogen sulfide.

The explosion was one of the worst in a string of recent industrial accidents in China, prompting questions about the speed of the rescue efforts. Last July, a blast ripped through a fireworks factory in northern China, killing 29 people and injuring at least 141, according to state media. An average of more than 10 000 people a month died in work-related accidents from January to September of 2003. A government official said the death toll highlighted China's need to institute a nationwide emergency response system.