152 people ill from Ukraine train fire

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

KIEV (AP) -- The number of people sickened by smoke from a derailed train's chemical fire reached 152, and Ukraine's transport minister suggested that safety violations caused the accident.

All 152 were hospitalized, including 47 children, Health Ministry spokeswoman Olena Titarchuk said. The number was up from the 69 people reported ill on Wednesday. The accident occurred Monday when a freight train derailed outside Lviv, near the Polish border, overturning 15 of its 58 cars. Six tanker cars containing phosphorus caught fire, sending smoke and noxious fumes over 35 square miles of western Ukraine. The first rescuers, unaware of the fire's toxic nature, did not wear protective suits and were poisoned, Emergency Situations Minister Nestor Shufrych told independent Channel 5 television. Transport Minister Mykola Rudkovsky said the pressure valves were broken on the tanker cars, which should have been decommissioned five years ago. He said Ukraine has suspended transport of yellow phosphorus. President Viktor Yushchenko criticized the government of his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, over its response and suggested officials downplayed the accident. ""The Soviet-era practice of issuing appeasing bureaucratic reports instead of taking professional measures, and concealing the actual situation instead of honestly informing the public, can no longer be accepted in Ukraine,"" Yushchenko told government officials, according to a statement. Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Ihor Krol said there was no lingering health threat and that the situation was under control. But some experts warned the area could still contain hazardous levels of chemicals. ""This accident is very dangerous, and its consequence can be unpredictable. I doubt that there is no threat for people now,"" said Zofia Kubrak, a chemistry and toxicology specialist at Lviv Medical University. The freight train was traveling from Kazakhstan to Poland when it derailed. Hundreds of villagers fled or were evacuated. Authorities planned to send the tanker cars still loaded with phosphorus back to Kazakhstan, the emergencies ministry said. Workers sprayed anti-fire foam on the damaged tankers to prevent new fires. Phosphorus can ignite on contact with air hotter than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and can cause liver damage if consumed. Certain types of phosphorus can cause severe burns and organ failure and have been used as chemical weapons. Phosphorus compounds are chiefly used in fertilizers, although they are important components of pesticides, toothpaste and detergents, as well as in explosives and fireworks. About 50 million tons of cargo — 70 percent of which include dangerous substances like chlorine, nitrogen, ammonia and petroleum products — are transported by rail through Ukraine annually. The accident has touched nerves more than two decades after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. Moscow kept the world's worst civilian nuclear accident under wraps for days and played down the disaster long afterward