Mainland China battling fires and contamination at chemical blast site
Mainland Chinese authorities struggled Friday to extinguish fires and identify dangerous chemicals at a devastated industrial site, two days after giant explosions killed dozens and left residents in fear of being cloaked in a toxic cloud.
Officials in the northern port city of Tianjin, where the blasts killed at least 56 people and injured more than 700, told a news conference they did not yet know what materials were at the hazardous goods storage facility that exploded, or the cause of the blast.
But mainland Chinese media and environment group Greenpeace warned a host of potentially extremely dangerous chemicals may have been stored there.
At least 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide were at the site, along with other dangerous substances, and the poisonous chemical had been detected in nearby drains, the Beijing News initially reported.
But the report was no longer available on the newspaper’s website on Friday, giving rise to suspicions that the mainland Chinese government was clamping down on sensitive information relating to the tragedy.
The official Xinhua News Agency said a team of 217 nuclear and biochemical materials specialists from the mainland Chinese military had traveled to Tianjin to inspect the site.
Xinhua cited local authorities for the latest rise in the death toll to 56, which it said included 21 firemen.
The agency added that 721 people had been hospitalized, 25 of whom were in critical condition.
Dozens of people were still missing but there was a rare moment to cheer on Friday morning when rescue workers pulled a 19-year-old firefighter
from the rubble.
Fear of the Unknown
However up to 1,000 firefighters were still struggling to extinguish blazes at the site, with smoke billowing from three areas, adding to uncertainty over whether more chemicals may be leaking.
Some police wore no protective clothing, while others had full-face gas masks, although an environmental expert told an official press conference that toxic gas indicators were within normal ranges and the air “should be safe for residents to breathe.”
At a nearby office building, security guard Liu Zongguang, 50, wore a cheap surgical mask.
“I’m wearing this mask because I saw some police wearing them, but I also saw some without masks, I don’t really know what to do,” Liu said.
“I’m really scared, but I don’t even know what to be scared of, the government hasn’t said anything, nothing about what we should do to keep our families safe from the chemicals.”
Greenpeace warned on Thursday that rain could transfer airborne chemicals into water systems.
The campaign group said it was “critical” that authorities monitored the situation closely and identified what substances were being released into the air.
Tianjin work safety official Gao Huaiyou told reporters that authorities did not know which of the many dangerous substances the company was authorized to store were on the site at the time.
As a trans-shipment facility, items were normally only kept for brief periods and “the types and amount of the dangerous materials are not fixed,” he said.
The company’s own records were damaged in the blast, he added, and information from its executives was unreliable as it did not match its customs filings.
The deputy director of the Binhai New Area government, where the blast happened said that 17,000 families, 1,700 industrial enterprises and 675 business had been affected, but did not provide details.
Volunteers and paramilitary soldiers wearing masks stand on patrol outside a temporary shelter after the explosions in Tianjin, Friday, Aug. 14.