SEOUL — The blast was so big that some North Koreans thought a nuclear war had erupted.
In the aftermath, it looked like a giant fireball had ripped across the landscape, leaving a trail of scorched earth and devastation for a radius of 500 yards around the Ryongchon train station.
This was the scene 48 hours after the terrible conflagration in the North Korean town, as observed by a delegation of diplomats and aid workers who were taken to the site Saturday. The train accident claimed 154 lives -- 76 of them children -- and injured 1,300 people, according to figures the North Korean government provided to U.N. agencies working in Pyongyang, the capital.
With the characteristically secretive North Korean regime lifting the iron curtain ever so briefly to allow in outside humanitarian aid, the delegation was allowed to take photographs and talk to residents, although it could not visit a hospital in nearby Sinuiju where most of the seriously injured were being treated.
"Access to those in need has long been an issue in North Korea. Today's mission is a very encouraging example of prompt and open access," Masood Hyder, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for North Korea, said in a statement Saturday night from Pyongyang.
In its first statement on the accident, North Korea said the blast was caused by "electrical contact caused by carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer." The regime further told the diplomats that a rail car filled with fuel was involved. Other accounts have suggested that two trains collided.
The U.N. agencies said that the force of the explosion destroyed or damaged about 40% of Ryongchon, an industrial town of 27,000.
North Koreans said the blast was so deafening they had initially thought the U.S. had dropped a nuclear bomb -- an event widely predicted by North Korea's anti-American propaganda machine.
"My first thought was, 'Now they've dropped it,' " one North Korean told Kaija Rajahuhta, an aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Demick reported from Seoul and Magnier from Beijing.