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UPDATED: 11:25, September 24, 2005
Texas bus fire kills 24 evacuees
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Photo:A US policeman checks a burnt bus near Dallas, Texas, September 23, 2005. The bus fleeing Hurricane Rita caught fire with 24 evacuees on board on that day, killing at least 20 people.
A US policeman checks a burnt bus near Dallas, Texas, September 23, 2005. The bus fleeing Hurricane Rita caught fire with 24 evacuees on board on that day, killing at least 20 people.
The evacuation of the US Gulf Coast turned deadly on Friday when a bus carrying elderly evacuees fleeing Hurricane Rita along a major escape route burst into flames and killed an estimated 24 people on board, officials said.

The accident turned a historic evacuation already delayed by endless traffic jams into a nightmare, as the Category 4 hurricane barreled towards the heart of the US oil industry with winds near 217 kilometres per hour and Texas officials predicted catastrophic destruction.

Rita was expected to make landfall early on Saturday near the Texas and Louisiana border.

In New Orleans, water spilled over a levee and into streets as Rita's outer edge dumped rain on a city left nearly deserted after Hurricane Katrina's flooding last month, a US Army Corps of Engineers official said. The water was waist high and rising fast in a neighbourhood hit hard by Katrina's flooding, local television reported.

Texas emergency officials predicted the entire city of Port Arthur would be flooded by an 6- to 7- metre storm surge. They said the storm would affect 5.2 million Texans in 1.8 million households, destroy 6,000 homes and have an initial economic impact of US$8.2 billion.

Said Governor Rick Perry: "Be calm, be strong, say a prayer for Texas."

The bus caught fire in the early morning darkness on Interstate 45 south of Dallas and closed the highway. Its charred hulk rested along the highway with a long string traffic stuck behind it.

The bus was believed to have been carrying elderly and infirm evacuees from South Texas, Dallas County Sheriff's Department Sergeant Don Peritz said in a round of media appearances. About 15 people were removed from the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames and an estimated 24 people did not make it off.

"We believe the explosions were related to a series of oxygen canisters that were on board," Peritz said.

The fire may have been caused by sparks caused by a brake failure, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller told CNN. "It's obviously a horrific event. The whole city is very upset about this. We've handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen, so it's really a tragedy," she said.

Historic evacuation

As authorities struggled to complete one of the largest evacuations in US history in the final hours before Rita's landfall, the problems underscored that despite years of planning for a major emergency after September 11, 2001, attacks, a fast evacuation of a large urban area cannot be assured.

More than 2 million people were leaving the Gulf coastal areas and Houston, the fourth-largest US city with a metropolitan population of 4 million, was deserted, with stores closed, roads emptied and few people on the streets.

People trying to escape Houston crowded inland-bound highways and sat for hours in enormous traffic jams on Thursday and struggled to find gasoline. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc said its stations in the Houston area of Texas had run out of fuel.

Houston-area residents who had not left were advised to stay in their homes.

"Those people at risk should not get on the highways to evacuate. People should prepare to shelter in place if they have not evacuated." Houston Mayor Bill White said.

As of 11 am EDT (1500 GMT), Rita's centre was about 355 kilometres southeast of Galveston and about 338 kilometres southeast of Port Arthur. With hurricane-force winds extending 136 kilometres from its eye, the storm was moving northwest near 16 kph towards the southwest Louisiana and upper Texas coasts.

The storm could bring a storm surge of 6 metres and up to 50 centimetres of rain in spots, the National Hurricane Centre said.

A hurricane warning was in effect along a 724-kilometre stretch from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana.

Head north

In Louisiana, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, Governor Kathleen Blanco pleaded with residents in low-lying coastal communities to head north. She recorded an automated telephone message, sent to more than 400,000 households, saying: "Hurricane Rita is heading your way."

Katrina killed at least 1,069 people and displaced as many as 1 million.

President George W. Bush, criticized for a slow federal response to Katrina, planned to visit Texas later on Friday (local time) to view the emergency preparations.

Rita threatened the region's massive oil industry, which was still recovering from Katrina.

The amount of US petroleum product production offline due to refineries shut down because of approaching Hurricane Rita total about 2.2 million barrels per day for petroleum, 1.2 million bpd for distillate fuel and 600,000 bpd for jet fuel, according to the Energy Information Administration.

China's consulate holds firm

While the American southern states being evacuated as the full force of Hurricane Rita closes in, China's Consulate-General in Houston said they have no plans to flee the city.

The consulate has stored necessary materials such as drinking water, canned food, and an electricity generator for the arrival of the storm, said Yang Chengqi, an official with the consulate.

There are about 70 people now in China's Consulate-General in Houston, including the family members of the staff.

According to Yang, the current evacuation is difficult because of huge traffic jams and problems with gas supplies.

He said the situation is serious and changing all the time and the consulate will pay close attention to the safety of the Chinese compatriots.

Chinese residents and students in the danger areas have or are being evacuated.

It is reported that there are about 2,000 Chinese students and 160,000 Chinese residents living in the region of Houston.

Source: China Daily

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