In the wake of a catastrophic fireworks explosion that claimed 23 lives in Suphan Buri, one woman’s fortunate escape highlights the pressing need for industrial modernisation in Thailand. However, this requires investment and financial capital.

As Thailand and the province of Suphan Buri, just to the northwest of Bangkok, mourn the deaths of 23 people in a catastrophic firework explosion, it emerged that one extremely fortunate woman survived. 46-year-old Namfon Bunkom, in a tizzy, just minutes before the explosion, hastily departed the building. Her son, who normally collected money from her, had failed to turn up and was at home instead.

46-year-old Namfon Bunkom’s relief and joy at her life being saved was somewhat subdued. Her mother and mother-in-law, as well as her closest friends, all perished on Wednesday in an instant.

Ms Namfon’s flustered decision, a near-run thing because of her commitment to work, saved her life. However, any joy or relief for the Thai woman was subdued. Afterwards, she confirmed that her mother and many of the people she knew had perished.

The massive explosion blew apart the lives of many local people.

Undeniably, however, it raises disturbing questions that can no longer be palmed off with reviews and enquiries.

Smaller factory units in Thailand need regulation. Laws need to change.

However, the problem is that the poor Thai economy may not be able to afford it.

As Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin courted inward investment at Davos, this week’s explosion tells of the need for industrial modernisation in Thailand

The deadly firework explosion on Wednesday 17th January was heard across the world.

Certainly, the instant loss of 23 lives was an earth-shattering reminder of dangerous working conditions.

It came as Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin courted international investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In short, it highlighted to the world the need for more progressive industrial development in Thailand.

However, not all lives were lost on Wednesday.

Undoubtedly, everyone inside the production facility died. In short, they were obliterated. At the same time, one worker survived, she had left the building just minutes before.

46 year old Namfon Bunkom left in a tizzy. Minutes later, she was left shell-shocked by a phone call. She survived but many she knew and loved were gone

The aftermath of the devastation which unfolded in the Sala Khao Sub District of Mueang District, Suphan Buri Province is still being processed.

The firecracker factory explosion took the lives of 23 individuals. Indeed, it included the factory owner and his son. The sole survivor was 46-year-old Namfon Bunkom.

This week, she shared her harrowing experience and miraculous stroke of good fortune. 

Namfon worked at the factory for 16 years. On Thursday, the day after, she recounted how she narrowly cheated death.

On the fateful afternoon, she received an unusual call from her son. In truth, she explained he would typically have collected money from the fireworks plant. 

But not on this day. Alarmed by the deviation from her routine, she left work in a fluster. 

Undoubtedly, that marginal call or split-second decision while in a tizzy saved her life. She left for home just 20 minutes before the factory exploded.

Call with the devastating news. Her workplace was gone, along with family, relatives and workmates. Her mother also died when the explosion went off

While waiting for her son at home, Namfon received another call inquiring about her location.

To her horror, she learned that the firecracker factory, where her family, relatives, and acquaintances worked, was gone. 

It had simply erupted and disappeared in a deadly explosion. The devastation claimed the lives of her mother, sister-in-law, and everyone she knew.

The grief-stricken survivor is still coming to terms with her profound loss.

She told reporters this: ‘From this incident, I must say that my child saved my life. But he still lost his grandmother, sister-in-law and everyone he knew. So he still hasn’t come to terms with what has happened.’

Namfon’s account of her story is a disturbing reminder of fate. At the same time, this catastrophe reminds Thailand of the human toll and danger posed by industrial accidents.

Manufacturing plant without machinery made a fireworks product to scare off pests in the farming sector

The local people in Suphan Buri are still coping with the loss of a whole working community.

The desolation suffered reaches into hundreds of families. Namfon told reporters that many of them depended on the fireworks facility for their livelihoods. 

At length, it emerged that the factory produced fireworks products for use in farming to scare off pests.

Namfon spoke of her dedication to assembling fireworkballs for over a decade. Her story reflects the economic challenges faced by families in regions across Thailand. This was low-grade industrial work. In reality, the factory had no machinery.

It was all packaging work but with one particular and exceptional danger. Gunpowder or explosives.

Meanwhile, for Namfon and her family, alternative employment opportunities were scarce.

Minister consoled the public and locals about the tragedy. She said the facility was not technically a factory under Thailand’s laws but this may change

Later, Industry Minister, Ms Pimpattra Wichaikul, acknowledged the tragedy and promised a comprehensive investigation.

Initial findings revealed that the facility, which employed approximately 30 workers, was not a factory. In brief, it did not qualify as a formal industrial enterprise under current legal provisions in Thailand.

Ms Pimpattra, simultaneously, however, underlined the need for enhanced safety measures.

She therefore proposes, at this time, to apply conventional factory regulations to small-scale fireworks producers. In short, the law will be changed.

The tragic explosion has prompted the government to reconsider all laws related to small-scale fireworks producers. 

Ms Pimphattra’s proposal entails stronger engineering and safety standards.

The current law defines an industrial factory as one with more than 50 workers operating with one or more machines.

The factory in Suphan Buri, despite having a proper licence to produce fireworks, did not meet these criteria.

The minister highlighted the need for a serious review of laws. Especially related to approving licences for fireworks producers and subsequently how such facilities are inspected.

She acknowledged the Department of Industrial Works’ role in organising a forum to gather opinions on this matter.

No plant or machinery, either labour was cheaper or the factory’s owners did not have the financial capital. It is a similar story nationwide in Thailand

Despite having a licence to produce fireworks, the factory’s operations were conducted manually, without the use of machinery.

This could be because labour costs in Thailand are far lower and machinery, in the longer run, costs more. Simultaneously, it may also be because the factory owners did not have the financial capital to modernise.

This is the creeping story of Thailand’s ailing second-generation economy.

Strangled for cash and eeking out an existence. Eventually, though, something has to give. On Wednesday, it was the 22 lives which were lost.

The minister emphasised the Ministry of Industry’s commitment to coordinate closely with regulatory agencies. She said she would ensure the safety of workers and surrounding communities going forward.

Seasoned MP and minister vows to enhance the safety of industrial workers after Wednesday’s disaster

Ms Pimpattra is a seasoned Thai politician and MP. Formerly a member of the oldest party, the Democrat Party, last year she changed horses. She joined the United Thai Nation (Ruam Thai Sang Chart) Party. This is the ultra-conservative party that backed General Prayut Chan Ocha’s reelection as Prime Minister in 2023.

Catastrophe in Suphan Buri as at least 22 die in huge fireworks explosion on Wednesday afternoon
Arrests ordered in Narathiwat fireworks blast, death toll reaches 12 with 300 homes ruined

The tragic incident follows a similar explosion in Narathiwat in July 2023. 12 people died there and 300 homes were destroyed.

This latest tragedy highlights an urgent need for a thorough review of protocols governing the licensing of fireworks producers. Rear Admiral Thanitpong Sirisawetsak is a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence. 

He disclosed that the Suphan Buri factory had proper permission for the purchase, storage, and use of potassium chloride. In effect, this is the deadly compound used in fireworks production.

Plan to organise a forum on the operation of fireworks facilities in Thailand following such incidents

In light of these revelations, questions arise. In particular, the efficacy of existing oversight and the need for comprehensive reforms to prevent such incidents in the future.

The Department of Industrial Works is set to organise a forum to gather opinions on setting standards for fireworks businesses similar to industrial factories.

Rear Admiral Thanitpong Sirisawetsak also emphasised the need for a thorough investigation and a change in the law.

‘Right now, it is being considered. Will such establishments become factories or not? For the safety of life and property of people surrounding the area and within the establishment itself,’ echoed Ms Pimpatra.

Of course, the question is what further safety costs and standards will have to be met by such smaller factories?

Undoubtedly, for explosive and fireworks handling, this needs to happen. Without a change, further explosions and loss of life are inevitable.

Significantly, it was the second explosion at this facility within two years. In 2022, another incident injured three and saw one fatality. 

Political world scrambles to reassure the public

Furthermore, the devastating incident in Suphan Buri is one of many.

Records show that over the past 15 years, 24 explosions have occurred at fireworks factories and warehouses, resulting in extensive damage, injuries, and fatalities.

The Suphan Buri explosion, coming on the heels of the incident in Narathiwat in July 2023, underscores the urgency and need for action.

Significantly, the Royal Thai Police ordered a survey of all fireworks manufactured and storage facilities following that disaster.

Akradech Wongpituchroj, a United Thai Nation Party MP for Ratchaburi and the chairman of the House Committee on Industries echoed the need for a serious review of laws and enforcement.

He also emphasised that the Department of Industrial Works planned a forum.

The tragedy has also prompted a nationwide inspection of all fireworks-making factories and warehouses. Interior Minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced he was addressing this. He declared the government would not tolerate lax safety measures in such establishments. 

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Further reading:

Catastrophe in Suphan Buri as at least 22 die in huge fireworks explosion on Wednesday afternoon

Arrests ordered in Narathiwat fireworks blast, death toll reaches 12 with 300 homes ruined

Massive fireworks blast at a popular trading point in Narathiwat leaves at least nine people dead