South Korea lithium battery plant CEO apologises after fire kills 23

Authorities in South Korea concluded the search for a missing worker after a body was recovered on Tuesday, taking the death toll in a powerful explosion and fire at a lithium battery factory to 23.

The fire on Monday tore through the Aricell plant in Hwaseong city, a major industrial cluster about 90 minutes southwest of capital Seoul.

The blaze produced toxic smoke inside the warehouse that stored as many as 35,000 lithium batteries, causing the workers to lose consciousness and die within seconds, fire officials said. Large chunks of the building appeared to have been blown out into the street by the explosion.

The operation continued overnight to find the missing worker, with fire authorities pressing 100 personnel and two rescue dogs on Tuesday to expand the search, Yonhap news agency reported.

They found human remains and personal articles, which will be DNA tested for identification, Hwaseong fire official Kim Jin-young said.

Firefighters and a police officer work outside of the site of a burnt battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, South Korea (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Firefighters and a police officer work outside of the site of a burnt battery manufacturing factory in Hwaseong, South Korea (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Officials from agencies including the National Forensic Service, police, and the fire department entered the factory as part of a joint investigation to determine the cause of the accident.

At least 17 of the 22 workers who died were Chinese and one Laotian was also among the dead. Most of them were hired temporarily to work at the plant packing primary lithium batteries run by unlisted company Aricell.

Park Soon-kwan, the chief executive of Aricell, offered condolences to the workers who were killed and apologised to everyone who had been affected by the fire.

“We will be conscientiously taking part in the investigation by authorities and will do our best to determine the cause of the accident and to take measures to prevent a repeat of such an accident,” Mr Park told reporters.

Established in 2020, Aricell makes lithium primary batteries for sensors and radio communication devices. It has 48 employees, according to its latest regulatory filing and its LinkedIn profile.

It supplies lithium-ion battery parts to Samsung SDI, one of the country’s major secondary battery makers, according to S-Connect’s website.

The bodies of the victims were recovered from the second floor of the plant, where the fire erupted. The second floor was allotted for inspecting and packaging finished battery products.

The identities of only two Koreans among the victims have been confirmed so far while others were burnt beyond recognition, authorities said.

"We plan to confirm the victims' identities by collecting DNA from their bodies," a police official said, adding that the process may take time due to their nationalities.

"I ask the ministries of labour and industry and the National Fire Agency to conduct an urgent safety inspection and, where there is concern of an accident, take immediate measures," prime minister Han Duck-soo said at a cabinet meeting.

He asked responsible authorities to provide special care to the families of foreign nationals killed in the fire.

"I ask the foreign ministry and other agencies to swiftly identify them, establish a cooperation mechanism with the relevant diplomatic missions, and provide close care throughout the entire process of giving updates to treating the injured, arranging funerals and offering compensation for damage," he said.

A labour ministry official told Reuters it was investigating whether Aricell complied with safety regulations and gave enough safety training for temporary foreign workers. Violations of those regulations are subject to criminal prosecution, the official said requesting anonymity.