China explosion: Firefighter rescued 32 hours later

A window shattered in Wednesday's blast at the Chinese port city of Tianjin. Picture: AP
A window shattered in Wednesday's blast at the Chinese port city of Tianjin. Picture: AP
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Rescuers pulled out a firefighter who was trapped for 32 hours after responding to a fire and huge explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin as authorities dealt yesterday with a fire still smouldering amid potentially dangerous chemicals.

A rapid succession of explosions on Wednesday – one equal to 21 tonnes of TNT – killed at least 56 people, injured more than 720 and left several firefighters missing.

They were sparked by a fire at what authorities said were shipping containers containing hazardous material at a warehouse, and they struck a mostly industrial zone late at night –otherwise the death toll could have been much higher.

But the warehouse was close enough to residences to appear out of compliance with safety regulations, raising questions about whether the facility had properly been authorised.

The toll included at least 21 firefighters among the more than 1,000 sent to the disaster. Firefighters initially responded to a fire at the warehouse and many of them apparently were killed by a series of explosions triggered 40 minutes after the fire was reported.

“Reinforcements had just arrived on the scene and were just getting to work when the explosions occurred and therefore there was no chance to escape, and that’s why the casualties were so severe,” Tianjin Fire Department head Zhou Tian said at a news conference yesterday. “We’re now doing all we can to rescue the missing.”

One firefighter was pulled from the zone at about dawn yesterday and taken to a hospital, where he was being treated for face, chest and foot injuries, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

It was a bright moment in a day otherwise clouded by mistrust and unanswered questions.

Local officials have been hard-pressed to explain why authorities permitted hazardous goods warehouses so close to residential complexes and critical infrastructure.

They also have been publicly reticent about suspicions that firefighters may have sparked the explosions by spraying water on volatile chemicals. Hazardous chemical warehouses must be at least 3,300ft away from public buildings, highways, railways and industrial enterprises under regulations enacted by China’s State Administration of Work Safety in 2001.

But Google Earth shows that Ruihai’s two warehouses are less than 500 metres from the S11 Haibin Expressway, and within 500 metres of a 
1.1 million sq ft apartment complex built by China Vanke, one of China’s largest developers.

Vanke said it acquired the land before Ruihai Logistics began loading toxic substances in its warehouses.

“The land was near normal logistics warehouses when we acquired it in April 2010,” the company said. “We were not aware they were later transformed into warehouses for hazardous material.”

The housing development’s windows were shattered and the side facing the explosions singed. The entire complex was evacuated and falls within a 
1-2km zone around the blast site that has been cordoned off by police.

Local officials have publicly reassured a sceptical public that the blasts have not contaminated the air, but many residents weren’t taking chances and could be seen yesterday wearing masks.

“I don’t usually wear a mask but I don’t quite trust what the government says,” Ma Wiehan said from behind her mask as she walked with her six-month-old daughter. “I’m doing this for my child.”

Questions about whether firefighters may have sparked the blasts have been circulating in the Chinese media. One report suggested that water used by first responders may have come into contact with a chemical that explodes on contact with water, but an official is also quoted as saying the first wave of firefighters could not have sparked the blasts.

Many of the fire trucks seen at the site hours after the blasts use a kind of firefighting foam.

Authorities have not said what caused the explosions, saying only that they originated at the warehouse owned by Ruihai International Logistics. Its website says the company is authorised to handle chemicals.