Fire at Lithium Battery Plant in South Korea Kills at Least 16

A fire at a lithium battery factory near Seoul​ on Monday killed at least 16 workers and left six others missing, officials said.

The toll from the blaze, one of the deadliest in South Korea in years, was expected to rise as rescuers searched the building in Hwaseong, 28 miles south of Seoul. ​Two workers were hospitalized with serious injuries.

Kim Jin-young, an official with the Hwaseong Fire Department, said 102 people had been working in the factory, owned by the battery maker Aricell, when the fire broke out. Many of the dead and missing workers were migrants​ from China and other countries, and officials feared they had been trapped inside the building. ​

Workers who fled the fire said it started when a single battery cell caught fire, triggering a series of explosions among some of the 35,000 lithium battery cells stored on the factory’s second floor, according to Mr. Kim.

Fires can occur in lithium batteries when the inside layers are compressed, causing a short circuit. The layers can become compressed by a sudden impact, such as during a vehicle collision, or by gradual swelling of the batteries through regular use.

Lithium is a metal that can store large amounts of energy in a small space, which is why it is attractive as a battery material. But that also means there is much energy available to turn into heat and even flames in case of a short circuit. Lithium battery fires have been a growing problem in the United States and elsewhere, and fires are an industrywide concern for battery manufacturers.

Aricell, the Hwaseong plant’s owner, makes batteries that are often used in running “smart grid” electricity networks.

Intense flames, toxic smoke and the risk of further explosions hampered firefighters’ efforts to search for the missing workers on Monday. Television footage from the fire showed orange​ flames and thick clouds of smoke billowing from the factory. Footage taken after the fi​re had been extinguished showed the building scorched​, with its roof caved in.

More than 160 firefighters, along with 60 fire engines, rushed to contain the fire. President Yoon Suk Yeol called on his government to “mobilize all available human resources and equipment.”

The blaze was the deadliest in South Korea since a fire at a construction site southeast of Seoul killed 38 people in 2020.

Though South Korea is known for its cutting-edge technology and manufacturing, the country has ​long been plagued by man-made disasters, including fires.

In 2018, nearly 50 people, most of them elderly patients, died inhaling toxic smoke in a fire at a hospital that lacked sprinklers. In 2017, 29 people were killed in a fire at a gym and public bath complex. In 2008, 40 workers​, including migrant workers, died​ in a fire at a cold-storage warehouse under construction.

This is a developing story.

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