EVERY time I drive down Wireless Road and turn right onto New Petchburi Road shivers still go through my spine. Images of people horribly injured, burned beyond recognition, and burning cars and buildings appear in front of my eyes. The intersection was close to ground zero in the deadliest traffic accident in Thai history on September 24, 1990.
Just 20 minutes earlier I had passed by, two 20,000-litre tanks of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) tumbled off a tanker truck hired by Siam Gas and spilt their highly flammable contents. Moments later the LPG ignited and the congested inner city area was transformed into a hell on earth.
Another reason I have such strong feelings about the incident after all these years is that I knew one of the victims, a young woman who was one of those killed in a woman’s dormitory near the intersection that was completely gutted.
A friend of hers told me two days after the disaster that the 21-year-old woman had suffered burns over 70 percent of her body. She refused to tell me the hospital where she had been taken to because she wanted to spare me the experience of seeing her so gravely injured. I can honestly say that in more than four decades in Thailand, nothing has gotten into my mind and stayed there like this tragedy. Anyone who has seen the graphic photos and news footage of the accident scene will understand what I am talking about.
At around 10 pm that Monday night I stopped at the coffee shop of the Siam Hotel on New Petchburi Road to get a bite to eat. Soon after ordering I heard many sirens blaring and went outside the hotel to see what was going on. Numerous fire trucks and other emergency vehicles sped down New Petchburi Road in the direction I had just come from. The television in the coffee shop was turned on, and regular programmes were interrupted with the breaking news that a huge fire was raging on New Petchburi Road, not too far from the hotel. Initial reports said there were many casualties. Before long, news camera teams were on the scene to capture the heart-wrenching images of people who had been burned to death and cars and buildings on fire.
For a few days updates on the accident were broadcast regularly on all TV channels. Newspapers and magazines printed horrific photos on their front pages. I vividly remember one photo showing a rescue worker holding the blackened corpse of a burned child in his arms. Another extremely graphic photo showed a completely naked person clothes obviously burned off running away from the inferno.
According to witnesses, the tanker truck driven by Sutat Fackaelek, hired by Siam Gas company, exited Srirat expressway and was speeding down the ramp onto New Petchburi Road. The driver tried to beat a traffic light that was already changing to red. In an attempt to avoid traffic coming from his right, Mr Sutat swerved sharply to the left, crashed into a car and then slammed into a building on the opposite side of New Petchburi Road bursting on impact from the tanks was the liquid petroleum gas, which may have been improperly mounted to the truck. The LPG that was spilt on the road ignited and the flames raced like a wind-borne wildfire to consume everything within about 300-metre radius of the truck.
Hundreds of firefighters, some called from surrounding districts, converged on the area. They were able to gain some control over the many fires in surrounding within a few hours, but they were still trying to cool gutted buildings the next day. Teams of emergency workers searched for victims. The firemen worked around the clock and were able to completely extinguish the blazes after almost 24 hours.
Ashes in the aftermath
Close to 100 people lost their lives, many of them trapped in vehicles waiting at the traffic lights or in buildings that went up in flames too quickly to offer any chance of escape. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition or literally turned to ash. Those who weren’t trapped in their cars tried to run for their lives without knowing which way to go in all the chaos. Some of them died from the burn injuries later in hospitals. Around 120 people were injured, mostly suffering from burns, with some disabled and disfigured forever. The driver, Mr Sutat, also died in the fire. Forensic Institute apparently found traces of alcohol and amphetamines in the blood and urine of the driver.
A fortunate few at the scene of the catastrophe survived unscathed. A Thai woman who was driving home from work along New Petchburi Road was stuck at the traffic light at the intersection when disaster struck. She said that she thought she would die for sure when she saw flames racing toward her car, but instantly got out and started running the other way. Luckily she was able to reach the safe zone beyond the reach of the flames. Her car was completely destroyed. Not surprisingly, her memories of the experience are still vivid 27 years later.
In all, the inferno completely destroyed more than 40 shop houses and other buildings, including the women’s dormitory, along with about 100 slum dwellings. Around 70 cars and motorcycles were destroyed or heavily damaged.
WHILE there have been a number of explosions and fires involving LPG in various types of vehicles with LPG tanks installed, LPG remains a widely used energy source in Thailand and it is generally viewed as economical and safe. However, the potential for a large-scale disaster involving LPG tanker trucks remains very real, and two recent incidents show that more care and possibly more regulation are needed.
The latest incident occurred during the transfer of LPG to a steamroller on Highway 23 in Roi-Et’s Thung Klao Luang district on April 9 of this year. Some gas apparently leaked during the transfer, and some sparks caused an explosion. The fireball was visible from a long distance away. Fortunately, no one was injured, although the tanker truck was destroyed and other vehicles and work site shelters were damaged.
On March 23, 2012, a tanker belonging to Siam Gas Co. Ltd. overturned, exploded and caught fire on Pattanakarn 20 Road in Bangkok. Three people were injured, including a man who was treated for serious burns at the Petcharavej Hospital ICU unit. The explosion shattered windows of nearby houses and sent residents fleeing for their lives.
The tragedy overwhelmed even the most hardened firefighters and other emergency workers. Most had witnessed devastating fires and traffic accidents, but nothing on this scale. It was one of the deadliest traffic disasters in Thai history and ranks highly on the list of man-made catastrophes. Total property damages were estimated at over 300 million baht, and of course, the human lives lost is incalculable.
Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan visited the scene of the tragedy to encourage and show support for the firemen and other rescue workers. A large media contingent looked on as he was briefed on the situation and then inspected the damage. Top police officers and other high-ranking officials were also present.
It took a few days for the emergency crews to remove all the bodies and clean up the area. Several electrical transformers had to be restored. The burnt-out cars were taken to nearby Nikhom Makkasan Road and left along the roadside for some days. Curious onlookers walked reverently and quietly past the shells of cars where so many people died. When I went I saw some people openly crying.
According to a hospital source, three Westerners were among the injured. Canadian dentist Peter Gillies, 45, suffered facial burns. His Thai wife was severely burned. American Martin Gruber, 42, and German Klaus Stenhorn, 34, also were severely burned but survived the ordeal.
Mr Sutat took most of the blame for the tragedy because of his reckless driving with such a potentially deadly load, but police investigators later discovered that there were no cables or bolts in place to properly secure the two gas tanks to the truck.
According to press reports, when the tanks fell off the truck rolling across the road, one of iron cylinders cracked in the process and released part of its contents, which were then ignited by sparks from the crash. The second cylinder exploded shortly after from the heat, spreading the destruction to the opposite side of the major thoroughfare.
It was found that the 20-year old truck was unlicensed and illegally modified. Officials from the Public Works Department also found that the steel used in the construction of the tanks was not thick enough.
A by-product of the tragedy is that it heightened awareness of the need for insurance on motor vehicles, especially commercial vehicles, to cover all possible legal liabilities involved. Compulsory third party motor insurance has been enforced by the Thai government since 1993. It covers death and injury but not property.
WORAWIT Weeraborwornpong is the CEO of Siamgas & Petrochemicals. He was a newcomer on Forbes’ list of Thailand’s richest in September 2009 when he claimed the no.30 spot with a net worth US$ 165 million.
In a short background on Mr Worawit, Forbes wrote: “Son of a shophouse owner who sold charcoal, rice, he founded Siam Gas Industries in 1973. Survived tragic setback in 1990 after LPG truck hired by his firm exploded, killing about 90 people. Worawit was convicted of associated carelessness but did not serve time in jail. He gave around $12 million to victims and their families. He also donates to Buddhist temples and enjoys meditation.”
In June 2014 Forbes placed Mr Worawit at no.47 on the list, with a net worth of US$ 350 million. His name didn’t appear on the list in the last couple of years but there’s no doubt he remains a very wealthy man.
The Bangkok Post published an interview with Mr Worawit in September 2012 in which he was asked to talk about the “ups and downs” of his long and successful career of selling gas in Thailand. His answer made it clear that the events of September 24, 1990, are burned into his mind as well, in large part because of the financial repercussions.
“The gas truck explosion on the expressway exit at New Petchburi Road was due to the driver’s imprudence, and the company had to take responsibility for the tragedy,” the Post quotes Mr Worawit, who added: “Before we could get back on our feet, the 1997 Asian financial crisis set in and put the company in debt.
“Thai funerals include a rite called ‘phao loak’ [fake lighting of the cremation fire when guests ask for forgiveness from the deceased] before the actual cremation. The gas explosion tragedy can be compared to the fake cremation [of Siamgas], but worse was the financial meltdown, which can be compared to the actual cremation that utterly made me feel like a dead man.
“Day after day, I lit joss sticks and prayed at my spirit house. My guardian spirit helped me get a bank loan, which I used to build other businesses, and that was my rebirth.
“People wonder how I could have survived such immense crises, which put us to the test whether we have the honesty, the perseverance, the integrity and so on to overcome life’s obstacles. It’s like how the Lord Buddha had to encounter Mara [the evil one] before attaining enlightenment. Whatever the obstacle, we should never give up.”