Tianjin blasts highlight risk of chemical storage
This bustling port city about a 90-minute drive from the Chinese capital confronted scenes of death and devastation Thursday huge gray plumes of smoke, vast parking lots of charred vehicles, blocks of high-rises with their blownout windows and ques
— tions about what had caused the explosions at a warehouse storing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals.
As the fatalities reached 50 from the blasts Wednesday night, rescue workers combed the rubble of the city’s flattened warehouse district for bodies while hundreds of people crowded hospitals. Throughout the day, hundreds more lined up to donate blood in the wilting heat.
The blasts, at a company licensed to store hazardous chemic als, left more than 500 people injured, 52 of them critically, and produced shock waves felt for miles.
Many of the wounded were
hit by flying glass and other debris as thousands of apartment windows blew in, some more than a mile from the site of the explosions.
At least 12 of the dead were firefighters who had responded to earlier reports of a blaze at the chemical storage site run by Ruihai International Logistics, a 4-year-old company that unloads and stores hazardous cargo, state news media and government officials said.
Officials have not explained precisely how firefighters sought to extinguish the initial blaze. But at least some of the stored chemicals were known to produce flammable gas when wet, raising the possibility that the firefighters might have inadvertently contributed to the disaster if they sprayed the flames with water.
On Thursday afternoon, fires at the site continued to produce a steady cloud of smoke after Tianjin officials, unsure about the nature of the chemicals, decided to let the blazes burn out on their own. State news media also reported that a military team of specialists in handling chemicals had been sent to Tianjin.
Residents of the Binhai district, frustrated by the lack of reliable information, said they were unsure whether the air was safe, and many people continued to wear disposable face masks throughout the day.
“Right now we don’t know anything,” said Sun Meirong, 52, an office cleaner who trudged down 13 flights of stairs to safety with her 1-year-old grandson after the explosions blew in the windows and front door of her apartment.
The devastation was worst in the port area, a sparsely populated expanse of warehouses and parking lots nearly 40 miles from the heart of Tianjin. Had the blast occurred during the day, the death toll would have most likely been far higher. Favorable winds Thursday also shielded residents from greater harm by blowing the toxic plume out to sea.
Ruihai’s website was inaccessible, and calls to the company were met with a busy signal. Also inaccessible was the website for the Tianjin Administration for Industry and Commerce, the agency that collects information about companies, their executives and shareholders.
According to the Tianjin Tanggu Environmental Monitoring Station, the company stored a collection of toxic industrial chemicals, including sodium cyanide, toluene diisocyanate and calcium carbide. The company was also licensed to handle highly combustible substances such as compressed and liquefied natural gas.
In a statement Thursday, Greenpeace warned that many of the substances posed worrying threats to human health. It said that sodium cyanide, a compound used in mining, is especial- ly toxic, while toluene diisocyanate, used to make polyurethane products, is a carcinogen and highly explosive.
With rain forecast for Friday, Greenpeace warned about the danger of airborne pollutants seeping into groundwater.
The disclosure that dangerous chemicals were stored less than a mile from dense residential areas raised questions about the government’s role in monitoring operations at the site.
It appears that officials in Tianjin were aware of the risks. In recent weeks, officials with the city’s Administration of Work Safety met with a number of local chemical companies and asked them to ensure the safety of the substances on their premises, citing summer weather that included “extreme heat, high humidity and heavy rain,” according to an Aug. 6 posting on the agency’s website.
‘Right now we don’t know anything.’ Sun Meirong Explosion survivor
Smoke billows Thursday from the site of an explosion that reduced a parking lot filled with new cars to charred remains at a warehouse in the Chinese port city of Tianjin. Fatalities from the blast, at a company licensed to store hazardous chemicals, reached 50 and more than 500 people were injured, 52 of them critically. The explosion reportedly produced shockwaves that were felt for miles.