Tian­jin area evac­u­ated over chem­i­cal fears


New small ex­plo­sions rocked a dis­as­ter zone in the Chi­nese port of Tian­jin on Satur­day, as author­i­ties pulled out an ad­di­tional sur­vivor and be­gan evac­u­at­ing the area to clean up chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion nearly three days af­ter mas­sive ex­plo­sions touched off the cri­sis.

An­gry rel­a­tives of miss­ing fire­fight­ers stormed a gov­ern­ment news con­fer­ence to de­mand any in­for­ma­tion on their loved ones, who have not been found since a fire and rapid suc­ces­sion of blasts late Wed­nes­day at a ware­house for haz­ardous chem­i­cals.

The death toll in the inferno in a mostly in­dus­trial area has climbed to 85, in­clud­ing 21 fire­fight­ers — mak­ing the dis­as­ter the dead­li­est 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 120 kilo­me­ters (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 mas­sive ex­plo­sions 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 on Satur­day pulled out one sur­vivor from a ship­ping con­tainer, state media re­ported. His iden­tity was not im­me­di­ately known. Tele­vi­sion video 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 3-kilo­me­ter (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.

Burn­ing flames were spot­ted on Satur­day, and ex­plo­sions were re­ported by wit­nesses and state media.

In one case, heavy smoke from a fire en­gulf­ing sev­eral cars rose up as high as 10 me­ters (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 in the over­cast sky. The air had a me­tal­lic chem­i­cal smell, and there was un­easi­ness over rain fore­casts, although it was warm and windy.

Fam­ily De­mands to Know

Mean­while, fam­ily mem­bers of miss­ing fire­fight­ers dis­rupted the latest news con­fer­ence about the dis­as­ter, de­mand­ing to know whether their loved ones were still alive.

“(The author­i­ties) didn’t no­tify us at all,” said Liu Huan, whose son Liu Chuntao has been miss­ing since late 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 neigh­bor­hood po­lice sta­tion have not yet been fully de­ter­mined, sug­gest­ing that the death toll could go up fur­ther.

Tian­jin Fire Depart­ment head Zhou Tian said at a news con­fer­ence 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 Fri­day morn­ing and taken to a hos­pi­tal. Zhou Ti and Zhou Tian are un­re­lated.

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 mas­sive in­juries, in­clud­ing burns and leg cuts.

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.”

As de­tails of the blasts and the res­cue ef­forts sur­face, mem­bers of the public have been rais­ing ques­tions about whether fire com­man­ders had erred in pre­ma­turely send­ing fire­fight­ers into a highly dan­ger­ous zone and us­ing wa­ter to put out flames on the site known to have stored a va­ri­ety of haz­ardous chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing sodium cyanide and cal­cium car­bide, which be­come flammable on con­tact with wa­ter.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials also have been hard- pressed to ex­plain why author­i­ties per­mit­ted haz­ardous goods ware­houses so close to residential com­plexes and crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, clearly in vi­o­la­tion of the Chi­nese rule that haz­mat stor­age should be 1,000 me­ters away from homes and public struc­tures.

Pope Fran­cis, mean­while, of­fered his prayers to the vic­tims of the dis­as­ter. “I as­sure my prayers for those who lost their lives and for all those per­sons tried by this dis­as­ter,” he said Satur­day in re­marks to thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered in St. Peter’s Square.

Fran­cis made the re­marks de­spite a tense re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bei­jing and the Vat­i­can.


(Above) A Chi­nese fire­fighter walks near fire trucks close to the site of an ex­plo­sion in north­east­ern China’s Tian­jin mu­nic­i­pal­ity, Satur­day, Aug. 15. (Right) Smoke rises from de­bris near a crater that was at the cen­ter of a se­ries of ex­plo­sions in north­east­ern China’s Tian­jin mu­nic­i­pal­ity as seen from an aerial view, Satur­day.

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