CHENGDU, CHINA — A stockpile of chemicals being used to disinfect an earthquake-shattered town caught fire Thursday, injuring soldiers doing relief work, as heavy rain added to the misery of survivors in tents or lean-tos.
The official New China News Agency reported that more than 800 people were evacuated from the town of Leigu, in devastated Beichuan County, to avoid a cloud of chlorine gas caused by the blaze.
China Central TV showed soldiers extinguishing the blaze and several who were gasping for air being treated by medics.
"The soldiers have inhaled the fumes, it has affected their bodies, and they are in the military hospital now," said a soldier, identified by CCTV as the leader of the fire crew. His name was not given. He said 61 soldiers were injured. New China News Agency reported that four people were injured. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the different injury tolls.
It was not immediately clear why the bleach ignited, though substances in it can become explosive if heated or mixed with hydrocarbons such as those in diesel fuel.
As in many ravaged towns, officials in Leigu have been spraying bleach on streets and rubble in an effort to prevent disease outbreaks. Rats and other scavengers have been reported in some places.
Rain grounded helicopters helping in operations to drain the Tangjiashan lake, which formed above Beichuan town after a quake-triggered landslide blocked a river.
With roads cut off, helicopters were used to bring in 40 heavy earth-moving machines to dig drainage channels.
The government Thursday raised the confirmed death toll from the earthquake to 68,516, with 19,350 people still missing. The government has said it expects the final tally to exceed 80,000.
About 158,000 people downstream from Tangjiashan lake have been evacuated, and officials have pledged to warn nearby residents in case of flooding so they have time to flee. Troops have sealed off Beichuan to the public.
Of 34 lakes created by the earthquake, 28 are at risk of bursting their dams, the official news agency said.