A SERIES of blasts at a warehouse for hazardous chemicals have killed at least 50 people and turned nearby buildings into skeletal shells in the Chinese port of Tianjin.
The incident raised questions about whether the materials had been properly stored.
Hundreds of people were injured in the explosions shortly before midnight, which sent out massive fireballs that turned the night sky into day and shattered windows several miles away.
Twelve of the dead were from among the more than 1,000 firefighters sent to the mostly industrial zone to fight the ensuing blaze.
“I thought it was an earthquake, so I rushed downstairs without my shoes on,” said Tianjin resident Zhang Siyu, whose home is several miles from the blast site. “Only once I was outside did I realise it was an explosion. There was the huge fireball in the sky with thick clouds. Everybody could see it.”
Ms Zhang said she could see wounded people weeping. She said she did not see anyone who had been killed, but “I could feel death.”
The municipal government in Tianjin, a key port and petrochemical processing hub about 75 miles east of Beijing, said 701 people were injured, including 71 who are in serious condition. It gave no figure for the missing.
There was no indication of what caused the blasts, and no immediate sign of any toxic cloud in the air as firefighters brought the fire largely under control by morning.
But the Tianjin government suspended further firefighting to allow a team of chemical experts to survey hazardous materials at the site, assess dangers to the environment and decide how best to proceed.
State media said senior management of the company had been detained, and president Xi Jinping expected severe penalties if anyone was found responsible for the blast.
“It was like what we were told a nuclear bomb would be like,” said lorry driver Zhao Zhencheng, who spent the night in the cab of his vehicle after the blasts. “I’ve never even thought I’d see such a thing. It was terrifying, but also beautiful.”
In a sign of sensitivity over the hazardous materials stored at the warehouse, state broadcaster CCTV went into a live broadcast of a news conference in Tianjin when the head of the area’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Wen Wurui, was speaking.
He said there had been no apparent impact on air monitoring stations, but that water samples were still being examined.
But when asked whether the chemicals at the warehouse had been stored far enough away from residences Mr Wen seemed at a loss for a reply and the broadcaster suddenly cut away from the news conference, only to return again later.
Authorities said the blasts started at shipping containers at the warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics, which stores hazardous materials including petrochemicals, sodium cyanide and toluene diisocyanate, a toxin which is volatile if heated.