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At Least 100 Injured, Two Dead, As Toxic Gas Spreads Near Cape Town

December 17, 1995

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Two people died and more than 100 others were rushed to the hospital after inhaling poisonous gas that spread through a residential area near Cape Town on Sunday, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

Two residents of the Macassar neighborhood were pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital late Saturday after inhaling sulfur dioxide gas, doctors said. Both men were reportedly asthmatic heart patients, and their cause of death could not be immediately confirmed.

Officials said more than 100 other Macassar residents were treated overnight after inhaling the corrosive gas, which irritates the eyes, nose and lungs. Most of the injured have been released.

The huge red cloud of sulfur dioxide was released late Saturday when a brush fire ignited a giant sulfur stockpile at the AECI chemical factory, police said. The stored sulfur covered an area the size of two football fields.

AECI spokesman Robbie Vermont confirmed that the sulfur had caught fire, but said no other details were available. He would not say who owned the stockpiled chemical.

At least 2,500 evacuated Macassar residents were taken to shopping malls and community centers in nearby Somerset West to escape the gas.

The gas ``burns your throat, your nostrils and eventually it burns your chest,″ Ricardo Myburgh, an evacuated resident, told the South African Press Association.

Thousands of South Africans were expected to travel to the coastal Cape Town area for the holiday season.

A stretch of highway was closed to traffic, and police were helping with the evacuation as fire fighters wearing respirators and heavy protective suits struggled to extinguish smoldering piles of the chemical.

``We seem to be making progress now,″ said regional fire chief Piet Harries. ``We’ve got two helicopters dumping large amounts of water on these large amounts of sulfur.″

The fire was expected to smolder for the rest of the day, he added.

State radio said the sulfur, a brittle solid used in the making of explosives, had been stored at the AECI factory since the apartheid era. Anti-apartheid sanctions had prevented South Africa from buying weapons abroad, so the country built up a large arsenal of the chemical.

Strong winds overnight had helped disperse the gas, lessening the danger to residents, fire officials said. But winds were beginning to die down on Sunday morning.

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