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VSŽ explosion raises serious safety questions

When a gas pipeline at the VSŽ steel mill in Košice exploded during repairs on the morning of Friday, October 27, nobody thought it would become Slovakia's deadliest industrial accident. The minor explosion ruptured a nearby pipeline carrying a carbon monoxide-laced heating gas. But not until several people were found dead that evening was the leak taken seriously. The carbon monoxide that seeped into the air killed 11 people and injured 244, 109 of whom needed to be hospitalized, officials announced Saturday afternoon when the nightmare was over. The plant managers blamed the tragedy on atmospheric conditions that trapped the gas low to the ground.


The worst is over. An officer with the Slovak national guard proves with an air monitoring device that the poisonous gas leaked from VSŽ in Veľká Ida was no longer dangerous.
Andrej Bán

When a gas pipeline at the VSŽ steel mill in Košice exploded during repairs on the morning of Friday, October 27, nobody thought it would become Slovakia's deadliest industrial accident. The minor explosion ruptured a nearby pipeline carrying a carbon monoxide-laced heating gas. But not until several people were found dead that evening was the leak taken seriously.

The carbon monoxide that seeped into the air killed 11 people and injured 244, 109 of whom needed to be hospitalized, officials announced Saturday afternoon when the nightmare was over. The plant managers blamed the tragedy on atmospheric conditions that trapped the gas low to the ground.

A commission investigating the accident, however, confirmed suspicions that human error played a significant part in the deaths and injuries.

"The responsible officials obviously underestimated the seriousness of the situation and did not take necessary steps," admitted the plant's director, Ján Smerek, in an interview with the daily Národná Obroda on November 3. Plant operators took hours before shutting down operations and evacuating over 2,500 people from a nearby community.

František Šnír, mayor of Veľká Ida, a village located just 500 meters from the ruptured pipeline, did not learn the full extent of the danger until Saturday, when the 2,650 villagers were ordered out.

"I had heard the explosion [Friday] morning. It was pretty strong, but, you know, there are explosions and noises in the plant all the time," Šnír said Sunday evening after the all-clear was given for people to return home. "We did not know there was something serious going on this time."

Before the investigation commission came out with results, Ladislav Jakubec, a steel mill spokesman, insisted that when the leak was discovered, his company took all necessary precautions and sealed off the immediate area. But he said it was not until 5 p.m. that the area was ordered evacuated and not until 9 p.m. that an order went out to clear the entire mill. But limited operations continued overnight, as did the injuries. Jakubec said there had been similar leaks in the past, and the carbon monoxide quickly mixed with the air, dissolving harmlessly.

"It sounds banal, but the weather caused the catastrophe," Jakubec insisted. Ladislav Šimák, head of Košice's emergency services, said plant officials did not notify him until around 10 p.m. Friday, after an ambulance driver from the local hospital succumbed to the gas and crashed his vehicle.

"Instead of calling us immediately, they thought of it only after their internal emergency system failed," Šimák said. "Perhaps all the time they believed they would somehow manage." Šimák said he had to borrow carbon monoxide detectors because the plant did not have enough. And contrary to explanations by steel mill officials that those who died were only those in the immediate area of the gas leak, Šimák said casualties were "all over the place." Two women, hospitalized in serious condition, succumbed to the gas while changing in a plant dressing room not in the immediate area of the leak.

"I went for the night shift Friday at 6 o'clock. We went to work as usual; nobody warned us there was any danger," the daily Pravda quoted an unidentified mill worker as saying Monday. "The woman now lying in a coma worked 500 meters away from me." But even those critical of the safety procedures were understanding of the need to keep production moving along at the steel mill, which employs about 25,000 people and fuels the regional economy.

"It must be hard to decide what to do in such cases; it is impossible to just stop production," Šimák said. "In a plant like this, it sometimes is impossible not to sacrifice a human being." However, as Smerek admitted later, there were many people at the plant's premises overnight not necessary for the limited operation and some of them "did not have to die."

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