SEOUL, South Korea — Up to 3,000 people may have been killed or injured Thursday in a horrific train collision and explosion at a station near the Chinese border, according to South Korean news media, just hours after North Korean President Kim Jong Il had passed through the same spot.
The blast was so strong that debris flew into the air for 10 miles around the crash site. North Korea declared a state of emergency after the crash, but the country’s secretive communist government cut international phone lines and stopped information from leaking out.
The North’s official KCNA news agency did not mention the disaster.
Almost immediately following the crash of two trains carrying oil and liquefied petroleum, rumors spread that it could have been a deliberate attempt on Kim’s life.
But senior U.S. Defense Department officials told Fox News there wasn’t any information to substantiate such theories and the collision was more likely a tragic accident.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration had no information on the collision.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting witnesses in the Chinese city of Dandong (search) on the border with the North, said the explosion occurred about 1 p.m. at the town of Ryongchon.
North Korean authorities placed a total news blackout on information about the crash, according to Chinese news reports, taking such drastic measures as cutting international phone lines in and around Ryongchon.
“The area around Ryongchon station has turned into ruins as if it were bombarded,” Yonhap news agency quoted witnesses as saying. “Debris from the explosion soared high into the sky and drifted to Sinuju,” a North Korean town on the border with China, the agency said.
About nine hours before the blast, Kim had reportedly passed through the station where the collision happened as he returned from a secret trip to China, South Korea’s all-news cable channel, YTN, reported. Kim met with the country’s leaders and discussed the standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
North Korea’s state-run news agency on Thursday confirmed that Kim had made a secretive trip to China on Monday through Wednesday, but carried no comments on the reported explosion.
A substantial number of Chinese citizens were believed to be among the presumed 3,000 victims, sources in China said.
Many of the survivors were transferred back to China to receive treatment, which seemed to be how news of the catastrophe spread despite the North Korea-imposed news blackout.