What made Korea’s lithium battery plant fire so deadly

Posted on : 2024-06-25 17:08 KST Modified on : 2024-06-25 17:08 KST
Over 20 workers, mostly foreign nationals, were killed in a fire at a lithium battery factory in Hwaseong on Monday
Firefighters recover bodies from what remains of the lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, that caught fire on June 24, 2024. (Yonhap)
Firefighters recover bodies from what remains of the lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, that caught fire on June 24, 2024. (Yonhap)

The massive fire at a battery manufacturer in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, is believed to have wreaked such havoc due to the difficult-to-extinguish nature of lithium fires and the fact that tens of thousands of lithium batteries were stacked in the factory. 

The tragedy is deepened by the fact that 21 workers were found dead on the second floor of the factory’s third building, which is where the blaze started.
 
Laborers working on the first floor of the building evacuated of their own accord once the fire broke out. However, 21 workers on the second floor, who were examining and packaging the batteries, fled to a room at the southwest corner after seeing the sudden burst of flames at the floor’s entrance. They were unable to escape from that room and succumbed to the inferno.
 
One worker managed to escape from the second floor, only to be discovered in a state of cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead after being moved to a hospital.
 
The fact that most workers fled to a confined space exacerbated the tragedy. The workers could not find a way out of the building and there was no way for the toxic gasses to diffuse. Some suspect that the explosion and rapid spread of the fire made the workers panic.

Firefighters recover bodies from what remains of the lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, that caught fire on June 24, 2024. (Yonhap)
Firefighters recover bodies from what remains of the lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, that caught fire on June 24, 2024. (Yonhap)


 
“An inspection of CCTV footage showed that around 15 seconds after the first battery started to smolder, sparks began to fly, leading to a chain reaction of flames. The workers rushed to the room opposite the flames in a state of panic,” firefighting authorities stated during an evening briefing on Monday.  

During the outset of the fire, some of the workers tried to extinguish the flames with fire extinguishers but were unsuccessful, authorities said.
 
The firefighting authorities denied any possibility of spontaneous combustion. A fire agency official stated, “External factors such as sudden shock or heat are essential for a battery to catch fire. We plan to determine the exact cause of the fire through precise forensics.” Authorities also dismissed the possibility of humidity or static causing the combustion, saying that the factory was equipped with preventative equipment.
 
The possibility of further battery explosions, as well as the large amount of hydrogen fluoride gas produced when lithium batteries catch fire, made entering the building difficult. At the time of the fire, 35,000 finished lithium batteries measuring 30 centimeters across and 35 centimeters long were stored inside the building.
 
Kim Jin-yeong, the Hwaseong Fire Station’s director of disaster prevention, stated, “In effect, the batteries burned themselves out and the firefighters prevented the flames from spreading to surrounding areas.”
 
The building was not furnished with fire protection equipment, such as sprinklers. Fires caused by lithium batteries are extinguished using sand to suffocate the fire by preventing the circulation of oxygen or by pumping a large amount of water into the blaze.

By Lee Jung-ha, Incheon correspondent; Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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