At least 24 people were killed and 270 others injured in a series of powerful gas explosions in the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, late Thursday, according to the city's latest update on Friday.
At least five blasts shook the city of 2.8 million residents, Taiwan's Premier Jiang Yi-huah said.
The explosions overturned cars and ripped up roads and sparked a massive inferno that tore through the city's Cianjhen district, officials said Friday. Terrified residents fled a huge ball of flames.
Four firefighters were killed in the accident, the National Fire Agency said.
The explosions, believed to have been triggered by gas leaking from underground pipelines, were powerful enough to upturn cars and tear open paved roads. One street had been split along its length, swallowing fire engines and other vehicles.
One local resident surnamed Peng told the French news agency AFP: "There was a heavy odor of gas and... then I heard explosions and saw fire spurting from a store."
"My house shook as if there were an earthquake and the power went out," she was quoted as saying by the Taiwan Central News Agency.
Rescue teams are also trying to prevent more explosions.
Hsu Lee-hao, Economic Affairs Ministry section chief staffing the National Disaster Response Center, said authorities are worried about preventing another explosion, which they fear could happen in the same area or elsewhere.
Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu said that the incident was the worst of its kind in the past decade.
Death toll may increase
The number of casualties may increase as the explosion caused road surface to collapse and people may fell into holes.
Taiwan's CNA said the local fire department received reports from residents of gas leakage at about 8:46 p.m. (0446 GMT) and that explosions started around midnight.
A Kaohsiung city government official said the blazes had mostly been extinguished or burned themselves out by mid-morning on Friday, but a few fires were continuing.
Jiang, the island's executive chief, is coordinating the rescue operations at an emergency response center Friday.
The island's military force has deployed more than 500 soldiers to the sites for rescue work.
The cause of the gas leak is still under investigation.
The explosions left about 23,000 people without gas and more than 12,000 without power.
Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou has urged relevant authorities to help the rescue, according to his office spokeswoman Ma Wei-kuo.
The local government was evacuating more than 1,100 residents from the impacted areas to schools and shelters as they tried to locate the source of the leaks and warned people to stay away.
Soldiers helping in effort
The military dispatched around 1,400 soldiers to the scene to help with the disaster effort.
It was the second gas blast in Kaohsiung in recent years.
In 1997, an explosion killed five people and injured around 20 when a team from Taiwan's state-run Chinese Petroleum Corp. (CPC) tried to unearth a section of gas pipeline in a road construction project.
It was the second disaster to strike Taiwan in just over a week, after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed with the loss of 48 people last Wednesday.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.