‘Dark day for Leverkusen’: Two dead and five missing after blast at German chemical park

An explosion at a chemical park in western Germany left two people dead and five missing on Tuesday, the site operator said, but a warning for residents to stay indoors was lifted after several hours.

'Dark day for Leverkusen': Two dead and five missing after blast at German chemical park
Black smoke seen over the chemical park in Leverkusen. Photo: Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mirko Wolf

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.

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.

‘Tragic accident’

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. 

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.

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Chemical reaction likely to blame for deadly blast at German plant

An explosion that killed seven people at a hazardous waste site in Germany in July was likely caused by a chemical reaction inside a waste storage tank, local authorities said Monday, citing an interim report.

Chemical reaction likely to blame for deadly blast at German plant
The site of the Chempark explosion on July 27th. Photo: dpa | Oliver Berg

The July 27 blast at the Chempark chemical complex in the western city of Leverkusen, which also injured 31 workers, was heard several kilometres away and rattled the windows of nearby homes.

It sent up a large cloud of black smoke that prompted authorities to urge locals to stay indoors, although later examinations showed no danger to residents’ health.

The interim findings, announced by the Cologne district government, suggest that a chemical reaction “probably” caused waste liquid in storage tank 3 to self-heat and rapidly become warmer, leading to a build-up of pressure it was unable to withstand.

“The whole process happened so quickly that the safety mechanisms were no longer able to dissipate the pressure. When the pressure exceeded the design pressure of the container, it exploded,” the interim report is quoted as saying.

The explosion then triggered a large blaze at the park’s waste storage and incineration site that took firefighters hours to put out.

Chempark operator Currenta said in a statement that the early findings match its own investigations.

The Cologne district government said it was awaiting further expert analysis before final conclusions could be made about the cause of the blast.

Prosecutors in Cologne have opened an investigation against unknown persons on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter and causing an explosion through negligence.

All those killed and injured in the explosion worked at the chemical site.

The blast area, in Leverkusen’s Buerrig district, was separate from Chempark’s main industrial park that houses numerous companies including Bayer, Lanxess and Evonik Industries.

READ MORE: Death toll in German chemical blast climbs to six