NEW small explosions rocked a disaster zone in the Chinese port of Tianjin yesterday, as rescue teams pulled out another survivor and began evacuating the area to clean up chemical contamination nearly four days after the first massive explosions.
Angry relatives of missing firefighters stormed a government news conference to demand information on their loved ones, who have not been seen since a fire and rapid succession of blasts on Wednesday at a warehouse for hazardous chemicals.
The death toll in the inferno in an industrial area has climbed to 85, including 21 firefighters. It is the worst disaster for Chinese firefighters in more than six decades.
An unknown number of firefighters remain missing, and a total of 720 people were injured in the disaster in Tianjin, a key port and petrochemical hub about 75 miles east of Beijing. The disaster has raised questions about whether dangerous chemicals were being stored too close to residential compounds, and whether firefighters may have triggered the blasts, possibly because they were unaware the warehouse contained chemicals combustible on contact with water.
The explosions on Wednesday happened about 40 minutes after reports of a fire at the warehouse and after an initial wave of firefighters arrived and, reportedly, doused some of the area with water.
Authorities yesterday pulled out one survivor from a shipping container, state media reported. Television reports showed the man being carried out on a sketcher by a group of soldiers wearing gas masks.
Authorities were keeping residents, journalists and other people not involved in the disaster response outside a 1.8-mile radius around the site of the explosions to carry out what media reports said was a clean-up of chemical contamination from sodium cyanide, a toxic chemical that becomes combustible on contact with water or even damp air.
Flames were spotted yesterday, and explosions were reported. In one case, heavy smoke from a fire engulfing several cars rose up as high as ten yards, accompanied by at least five explosions.
Police and military personnel manned checkpoints on roads leading to the blast sites, and helicopters were seen hovering above. The air had a metallic chemical smell, and there was uneasiness over forecast rain, although it was warm and windy. Meanwhile, family members are desperate for information.
“[The authorities] didn’t notify us at all,” said Liu Huan, whose son Liu Chuntao has been missing since Wednesday. “Our son is a firefighter, and there was a team of firefighters who lost contact. We couldn’t contact him.”
Liu Longwang said she had not heard a word on her son Liu Ziqiao, also a firefighter. “We are extremely worried,” she said. “He’s just turned 18.”
State media reported that the casualties of the first three squads of firefighters to respond and of a neighbourhood police station have not yet been fully determined, suggesting that the death toll could rise.
Tianjin Fire Department head Zhou Tian said on Friday that the explosions occurred just as reinforcements had arrived on the scene and were getting to work. “There was no chance to escape, and that’s why the casualties were so severe,” he said. “We’re now doing all we can to rescue the missing.”
One surviving firefighter, 19-year-old Zhou Ti, was found on Friday morning and taken to hospital.
Li Yonghan, a doctor at Teda Hospital, called Zhou’s survival “miraculous” and said Zhou escaped death mainly because he was covered by his fallen comrades. Zhou had serious injuries, including burns and cuts to his leg.
From his hospital bed, Zhou told state broadcaster CCTV that the fire was spreading out of control. “I was knocked onto the ground at the first blast,” recalled Zhou, his eyes swollen and closed. “I covered my head and don’t know what happened after that.”