TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hsueh Ming-chuan was lying on an inflatable boat when her mother found her.
“All her skin was gone. Her hands were shaking … and she kept calling for me,” her mother said, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Hsueh, 17, was among nearly 500 people injured when a huge fireball engulfed party goers Saturday night at a seaside water park outside Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.
The sudden burst of flames sent terrified people, most of them in their teens and 20s, running for their lives.
Firefighters say they believe the explosion was caused by a colored powder that was sprayed over the crowd — part of the theme of the “Color Play Asia” event. It’s still unclear what caused it to ignite, and Taiwan’s government has banned events from using colored powder until further notice.
Hospitals in the area are battling to cope with the high number of burns patients from the disaster. A 20-year-old woman who suffered burns to 90% of her body died Monday, Chung Shan Medical University Hospital said.
Others are still clinging to life. Of the 497 injured, more than 180 are in intensive care units, according to public health officials in New Taipei City, the municipality where the water park is situated.
Plastic surgeons working around the clock
The critical cases include Chu Li, a young woman who had just turned 18.
“She suffered third-degree burns over 80% of her body,” her father said, breaking down in tears as he described her injuries, according to CNA.
Many of the patients inhaled the flammable powder, raising concerns it could have damaged their respiratory tract and internal organs, Dr. Charles Hou, Director of Critical Care Medicine at Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei, said Monday.
He told CNN that plastic surgeons have been working around the clock since the accident to remove severely damaged skin from victims. Skin grafts are being reallocated from skin banks at hospitals around Taiwan, the doctor said.
Liu Yeuh-ping of Taipei’s Department of Health told CNN on Sunday that while there was ample room for patients in intensive care units, there are not enough spaces in the specialized burn units. Health authorities are trying to move patients in need of intensive burn care, the official said.
Eric Chu, the mayor of New Taipei, said the disaster was the “worst incident of mass injury” his city had ever seen.
Event organizer apologizes
Investigators are trying to establish why the powder erupted into flames at the park, Formosa Fun Coast.
“The fire came too fast and nobody was able to run,” said Huang Guan-zhang, a 19-year-old witness.
Packets of the colored powder had been given out to party goers at the event. But a large quantity of it appeared to have been shot out over the crowd as part of the special effects just before the midair explosion.
Five people have been questioned in connection with the blast, according to police. Two of them are considered to be suspects, the organizer of the party and the person in charge of lighting and hardware. Both are reported to have been released on bail.
The organizer, Lu Chung-chi, apologized publicly for what happened, getting down onto his knees in front of reporters.
“We shoulder ultimate responsibility,” he said, according to CNA.
Color-themed events popular worldwide
The company that ran the party, Color Play Asia, has held similar events in Taiwan previously. Video on its Facebook page shows jets of colored powder being fired into crowds.
The powder is believed to have been made from cornstarch and coloring.
Color Play Asia says on its website that the powder is in compliance with “relevant standards.”
Colored powder is also thrown around liberally during the Indian festival of Holi, as well as at color-themed running events held around the world.