At least 31 people were injured, one of them critically, in the blast that rocked the Chempark complex in the city of Leverkusen at around 9.40am, site operator Currenta said.
All of those affected worked at the site.
In an updated toll in the evening, Currenta said a second body had been found by rescue crews. It also revised upwards the number of missing employees
from three to five.
“The search for the missing continues at full speed. Sadly, hopes of finding them alive are dwindling,” said Chempark head Lars Friedrich.
The cause of the huge blast, which was heard several kilometres away, remains unknown.
Germany’s NINA warning app sent an “extreme danger” alert to residents, telling them to close their doors and windows and keep emergency numbers free as much as possible.
JUST IN – Severe explosion at "Bayer" chemical plant in Leverkusen, Germany. A huge column of smoke rises. Population warned to immediately close windows and doors.pic.twitter.com/sFrR0v0uDG
— Disclose.tv 🚨 (@disclosetv) July 27, 2021
The explosion happened at Chempark’s waste incineration site in Leverkusen’s Bürrig district.
The area is separate from the main industrial park that houses numerous chemical companies including Bayer, Lanxess and Evonik Industries.
At an afternoon press conference in Leverkusen, Chempark head Lars Friedrich said the warning to stay indoors remained in place while experts raced to identify the composition of the smoke cloud.
Asked whether the cloud might contain toxic gases, Friedrich declined to speculate but said nothing could be ruled out.
City mayor Uwe Richrath said it was “a dark day for the people of Leverkusen”.
Playgrounds in the Bürrig and Opladen neighbourhoods would be closed, he said, urging residents to rinse fruit and vegetables from their gardens before eating them.
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The city of Leverkusen said on its Facebook page that measurements of pollution levels were all still “in the green” and that any measures taken were as a precaution.
A hotline has been set up to answer questions from concerned residents. Locals were also asked to report any sightings of soot or residue that may
fall from the sky so it can be examined.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragic accident and the death of an employee,” said Chempark’s Friedrich, adding that “rescue efforts continue at full speed” to find the four missing employees.
The blast had triggered a fire in tanks used as storage for liquid solvents awaiting incineration, he said.
The large blaze took several hours to put out, with firefighters from nearby Cologne called in to help.
Three of the tanks “were completely or partially destroyed”, Friedrich said, making it impossible to tell for now where the explosion started.
Large numbers of police, firefighters and rescue crews were deployed to the scene, as well as pollution detection experts.
Massive chemicals complex
Leverkusen, on the eastern bank of the Rhine river, lies about 20mkilometres (12 miles) north of Cologne in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It has a population of more than 160,000 people.
The chemical incident comes as Germany is reeling from historic floods earlier this month that left at least 180 people dead in North Rhine-Westphalia and neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate state.
The high death toll raised questions over the country’s warning systems, and whether enough had been done to notify residents ahead of time.
Government officials have called for old-school sirens to be used more widely again, on top of smartphone warning apps and radio and TV broadcasts.
Currenta said it had used both sirens and the NINA app to sound the alarm after the explosion.
‘Close windows and doors’
Police in Cologne said that they were closing several motorways in the Leverkusen area because of “major damage”.
They urged drivers to stay away and repeated the message that residents should move indoors “and close all windows and doors as a precaution”.
Residents said the blast could be heard far and wide, with some saying their windows were rattled by the force of the explosion.
People in other nearby areas were also urged to close their doors and windows.
A large cloud of black smoke could be seen after the blast, which some drivers filmed on their mobile phones while passing the site.
🇩🇪 Large blast at the Chempark chemical production site in Leverkusen.pic.twitter.com/6LxeZCW1ne
— PiQ (@PriapusIQ) July 27, 2021
The spokeswoman for the Cologne police said that road closures included the A1 in both directions between the Leverkusen and Cologne-North motorway junctions.
According to Currenta, the Chempark chemicals complex is one of the largest in Europe.
More than 70 companies are based at its three locations in Leverkusen, Dormagen and Krefeld-Uerdingen.